Falcons Meet Bears: The Rest Is History

When I ended my piece on the Atlanta Falcons last week, I didn’t think “Sunday was just the latest exhibit, but unlikely the last” would mean the very next game would result in another epic collapse. It certainly didn’t seem likely when Atlanta led 26-10 with just over nine minutes left and the Bears were struggling with Nick Foles, who came off the bench in the third quarter to replace Mitchell Trubisky following an interception.

But given the first two weeks of the season for these teams and Foles’ history of beating Atlanta (2017 playoffs and 2018 opener), maybe it was inevitable. Either way, it was historic.

The 2020 Falcons are the first team in NFL history to blow a fourth-quarter lead of 15+ points twice in the same season, doing so in back-to-back games. The only other team to do it twice in one 365-day period was the 2003-04 Seahawks against Baltimore and St. Louis. The 2020 Bears are the first team in NFL history to win two games in the same season after trailing by at least 16 points in the fourth quarter. They also finished off Detroit in Week 1 after trailing 23-6.

Prior to 2020, a 15+ point comeback win in the fourth quarter was something that only happened 64 times in NFL history. These are pretty rare outcomes, though we have seen 10 of them since 2016, including four games that involved at least one of these teams. This is the third time the Falcons have blown one since 2016 and I don’t even need to mention what the third game was. You just know.

What struck me about this game and motivated me to write something was just how improbable it was for Chicago to win despite a lot of failure in making the 26-10 comeback:

  • In the third quarter, Foles threw a 50/50 ball on his first drive replacing Trubisky and it was intercepted in the end zone.
  • With 10:46 left to play, Anthony Miller dropped a touchdown on fourth down in the end zone.
  • After scoring one touchdown, Foles was intercepted on a two-point conversion try with 6:20 left, keeping it a two-score game at 26-16.

That’s not the cleanest comeback you’ll ever see, and yet the Bears were able to drive for three touchdowns in SEVEN MINUTES AND 17 SECONDS without even using a timeout. How the hell does Atlanta allow that to happen?

As you may expect, it’s more coaching malpractice from Dan Quinn and company. The kicking game also missed a 48-yard field goal with 13:35 left that could have made a big difference late.

However, what shocked me was how complicit Matt Ryan was in this collapse. Last week I covered how great he was in the games they’ve lost before, but this was not the case on Sunday. He didn’t have Julio Jones available, but Ryan played well enough for most of the game. But in the fourth quarter, Ryan started by throwing seven straight incompletions and taking a sack that made the missed field goal harder. I’m not even going to talk about the final drive where Ryan threw an interception to effectively end the game.

The game never should have reached that point, but the Atlanta offense went three-and-out on three straight drives that consumed a mind-boggling TWO MINUTES AND 58 SECONDS. He could have taken seven god damn kneeldowns and likely would have walked away a winner (and with a higher completion percentage).

I watched the seven throws. They increasingly got worse, and only one was dropped, which may have set up a third-and-medium situation with around four minutes left. It was a terrible finish for the quarterback.

Perhaps the main complaint against Atlanta in the 28-3 Super Bowl collapse was not running the ball in the fourth quarter. It happened again here as if the team’s learned nothing.

What happens if the Falcons just run the ball instead of throwing so many clock-stopping incompletions in the fourth quarter? Now the quick analysis I’m going to do next isn’t the greatest method in the world, because it’s making a big assumption that Chicago would do things the same exact way they did. It also can’t predict exactly what Atlanta’s runs would bring, but let’s just look at how easy Atlanta made this comeback for Chicago. I’m going to take off about a net of 43 seconds for each run assuming the time to run the play after milking the play clock to one:

4Q Drive 1: Falcons run instead of throwing incomplete on 2nd-and-7, clock goes down to 13:40. Falcons run on third down instead of a sack, clock goes down to 12:57 before field goal attempt. Chicago gets ball back with 12:51 left, a total loss of 44 seconds.

4Q Drive 2: Instead of throwing on 3rd-and-5 up 16, Falcons just go conservative and run again before punting. Bears get ball back with another loss of 38 seconds (82 seconds total).

4Q Drive 3: Up 10, Atlanta starts with 4:53 left instead of the actual drive time of 6:15. Maybe this is where the Bears start to use their three timeouts, but two extra runs instead of passes and a punt could chop off an extra 75 seconds, leaving the Bears with 3:00 left.

At this point, even if the Bears only used a minute (they used 59 seconds in real life) to score another touchdown, they’d still be down 26-23 at just about the two-minute warning. They could kick deep given their three timeouts, or they could do the onside kick. Maybe they already used their timeouts and have some extra time left, but either way, it’d be much better than what really happened: Atlanta throwing three straight incompletions with 4:21 left and a drive that consumed an embarrassing 22 seconds.

Running the ball may not be cool anymore, but it’s the safest way to bleed the clock. They signed Todd Gurley for a reason, right? Just run more when you’re up 16, your quarterback can’t get the ball wet if he was in the ocean, and your defense can’t be trusted.

Seven straight incompletions to help the Bears score three touchdowns in 7:17 without even using a timeout. It’s just baffling stuff for a team that should be 2-1 right now and looking at a division where they can actually do something this year. But will there be any fight left in Atlanta by the Week 10 bye? Afterwards their schedule is loaded with two games against Drew Brees and the Saints, two games against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, and they’ll see Patrick Mahomes right after Christmas. Oh, and they’ll be in Aaron Rodgers’ house this Monday night.

Maybe we won’t see many more Atlanta leads this season, and if the last two weeks are any indication, maybe that’s a good thing.

Start cleaning house.

The Atlanta Falcons and the Art of Failure

Most NFL teams lose games because they were outplayed over the course of 60 minutes. They were sloppy and made too many mistakes. They weren’t aggressive enough or prepared for every new detail. Even if they still had their chances at the end, you just know they weren’t good enough that day to earn the win.

Then there’s the Atlanta Falcons, who have mastered the art of f*cking people over for three hours without a happy ending. Oh, there’s plenty of teasing and choking, but it always seems to end in unsatisfactory disappointment in the Matt Ryan era.

From the team that brought us 28-3, the Falcons may have found their regular season equivalent on Sunday in Dallas with a 40-39 loss that likely just killed their season.

Atlanta is the first team in NFL history to lose after scoring 39 points without a turnover.

Since 1940, teams are now 457-1 when scoring at least 39 points without a turnover. That includes playoff games and excludes two AAFC games. The Falcons led 20-0 in the first quarter after Dallas lost three fumbles. That’s right, the Falcons finished +3 in turnovers and still lost. Since 1940, teams are now 492-1 when scoring at least 38 points without a turnover and with multiple takeaways. The Falcons own the only loss.

Sound familiar? Of course, the worst part of this loss felt like a turnover when the Falcons calmly watched an onside kick attempt with 1:49 left trickle just over 10 yards before the Cowboys legally recovered it. That set up Greg Zuerlein’s 46-yard game-winning field goal at the buzzer to stun the Falcons. The play doesn’t count as a turnover since the Falcons never had possession and it wasn’t a fumble or interception, but it hurt just the same. Head coach Dan Quinn even managed the late stages so poorly that the Falcons were out of timeouts for the final drive, unable to save any time for Ryan to have a chance to answer.

Yet if you told a person this was how a game ended on Sunday without mentioning the teams, chances are if they know their NFL they would have guessed the Falcons came out on the losing end.

It Wasn’t Always Like This in Atlanta

To say things were always this bad in the Ryan era would simply be untrue. Let’s not forget how the Mike Smith era started.

From 2008 through the 2012 regular season (Ryan’s first five seasons), the Falcons under head coach Mike Smith blew just three fourth-quarter leads, including two tussles with Drew Brees and the Saints. That was the lowest total in the NFL in that time span. That was a great job of protecting leads for a team that had five straight winning seasons for the first and only time in franchise history.

But on the cusp of greatness, everything started to change in the 2012 playoffs. The top-seeded Falcons hosted Seattle in the divisional round, and despite taking a 27-7 lead into the fourth quarter, Atlanta surrendered three touchdowns in the quarter and trailed 28-27 with 31 seconds left. It was going to be a monumental collapse to a team with a rookie quarterback (Russell Wilson), but Ryan was able to complete two passes for 41 yards to set up a game-winning field goal, saving Atlanta’s season for the moment.

The following week in the NFC Championship Game against San Francisco, the Falcons again started hot and rolled to a 17-0 lead before things fell apart. Colin Kaepernick led the 49ers back to a 28-24 lead and Ryan was unable to connect on a fourth down in the red zone to keep the season alive. It was at the time the second-largest blown lead in a championship game in NFL history.

Atlanta didn’t recover for years, falling into a pattern of blown leads and red-zone failures. From the 2012 NFC Championship Game through the 2014 season, Smith’s Falcons blew eight fourth-quarter leads and he was fired.

Enter Dan Quinn in 2015

Quinn was the former Seattle defensive coordinator, so his most recent game was not the most flattering part of his resume. Yes, the guy who blew 28-3 and a 19-point fourth quarter lead in the Super Bowl already held the record for the biggest blown fourth quarter lead (10 points) in a Super Bowl. The Seahawks blew a 24-14 lead in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIX against New England. Outside of that stellar 2013 Super Bowl season, the Seahawks have had consistent problems with holding leads in the fourth quarter, and Quinn is very much a believer in Pete Carroll’s defensive philosophies. You’re rarely going to see these defenses send the house and blitz in critical situations. They believe they can limit big plays and keep everything in front of them with strong tackling, but time and time again we have seen opposing quarterbacks pick their way down the field against soft zones with ease.

In Quinn’s first four seasons (2015-18), the Falcons blew 13 leads in the fourth quarter, which trailed only the Chargers during that stretch of time. Even in the Super Bowl year and MVP season for Ryan (2016), the Falcons managed to blow four leads while the rest of the NFL’s playoff field that year combined to blow one. That’s why the Falcons were only 11-5 and a No.2 seed despite having superior statistics to most teams in the NFL.

Against the 2016 Chiefs, Atlanta invented a new way to lose a game. Ryan led the Falcons back from an 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter to a 28-27 lead with 4:32 left, but something funny happened on the two-point conversion attempt. Ryan was intercepted by Eric Berry, who returned the ball for two points to give the Chiefs the first “Pick 2” in NFL history, not to mention they regained a 29-28 lead.

Ryan never got another chance on the field to make up for the error. The Chiefs ran out the clock and won the game. However, it looked like this was going to be the last time the 2016 Falcons lost after crushing their next six opponents to reach Super Bowl LI.

Unfortunately, that only set the stage for Atlanta’s masterpiece.

28-3

I’ve detailed on here before the numerous breaking points where if Atlanta just made one positive play, the Falcons win that Super Bowl. Even something as simple as Jake Matthews not getting a holding penalty in New England territory should have done the trick.

6:04 left, 3Q (ATL leads 28-3): NE converts a fourth-and-3 to Danny Amendola. A stop at midfield would have put Atlanta in great shape to score again.

1:30 left, 3Q (ATL leads 28-9): A holding penalty on Jake Matthews turns a second-and-1 at the NE 32 into second-and-11 at the NE 42, out of FG range. An incompletion and sack of Ryan lead to a punt.

8:31 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-12): The turning point. Falcons throw on third-and-1, Devonta Freeman misses the block, Ryan is sacked and fumbles. Patriots take over at the ATL 25. This had to be a running play.

5:56 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-18): Stop a two-point conversion and you’re still in great shape. The Falcons didn’t. James White takes a direct snap to make it 28-20. Game on.

3:56 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-20): Ryan is sacked for a 12-yard loss on second down at the NE 23. The other major turning point. You just hit the Julio Jones pass to get into field-goal range. Kneel down three times if you have to. The pass here was insane.

3:50 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-20): Matthews has another horrible holding penalty, wiping out a Ryan completion to the NE 26. Matt Bryant could have made a field goal there, but on third-and-33, Ryan threw incomplete and the Falcons had to punt from the NE 45.

2:28 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-20): Robert Alford can clinch his Super Bowl MVP with a second interception of Tom Brady, but the pass goes off his hands, and he even helps keep the ball alive with his leg while a diving Julian Edelman makes an unbelievable catch for 23 yards.

0:57 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-26): Alright, you’re not going to give up TWO two-point conversions, are you Atlanta? Yes, you did, and on a bubble screen of all things. By then, your goose was cooked, because you know the Patriots weren’t going to give the ball back in overtime after winning the coin toss.

Any one of those eight things goes right for the Falcons and Atlanta is the reigning champion.

It’s hard to imagine a team finding a more soul-crushing way to lose a Super Bowl than Atlanta. Teams that start games that well just do not lose in this league’s 100-year history. The 25-point blown lead is of course the worst in championship game history now, so the Falcons have the first and third spots on that list.

While Ryan’s five sacks, including a huge strip-sack fumble in the fourth quarter, were pivotal in the loss, he still finished the game with a 144.1 passer rating and 12.35 yards per attempt. Both of those numbers are the highest in NFL history for a playoff loss (min. 15 attempts).

Thanks for the PTSD, Atlanta

In the seasons since Super Bowl LI, the Falcons have looked like only a shell of the team that created the greatest collapse in NFL history. Maybe that’s all that’s left of the psyche for Quinn, Ryan, Julio Jones and company. The defense hasn’t been good since 2017 and has fallen back to terrible status much like the seasons that canned Smith in Atlanta. Ryan’s had some moments and a big stat line in 2018, but he hasn’t consistently put a full year together like his peak MVP performance of 2016 when Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator before taking the San Francisco job.

So what the Falcons provide us now are games like Sunday: PTSD-triggering moments of 28-3 where a game performance that has been a sure win in NFL history turns into a loss for Atlanta.

The last four NFL quarterbacks to lose a game with a passer rating of 140+ (min. 20 attempts):

  • 2019 Matt Ryan at Arizona
  • 2018 Marcus Mariota at Houston
  • 2018 Matt Ryan vs. New Orleans
  • 2016 Matt Ryan vs. New England

The last three NFL quarterbacks to lose a game with 350+ passing yards and a 130+ passer rating:

  • 2019 Matt Ryan at Arizona
  • 2018 Matt Ryan vs. Cincinnati
  • 2018 Matt Ryan vs. New Orleans

Ryan’s passer rating against the 2018 Saints (148.1) is the highest in regular season history in a loss with at least 25 pass attempts. His 144.9 rating against the 2019 Cardinals ranks third on the same list.

It’s not just Ryan either, but the offense as a whole has lost in historic fashion in these games highlighted against the Saints, Bengals and Cardinals. The Saints and Bengals were back-to-back home games in 2018.

That means the 2018 Falcons lost back-to-back home games after scoring at least 36 points and having zero turnovers. Since 1940, home teams not named the 2018 Falcons are 428-3 when scoring at least 36 points and having zero turnovers. The Falcons were 1-2 doing that.

Since 1991, home teams that converted at least 70 percent of their third downs and scored at least 25 points are 83-2. The Falcons, against the 2018 Bengals, had the first loss in that group. (The 2018 Raiders also lost 40-33 to Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs)

Sunday was the sixth time since 2012 that the Falcons have lost after leading by at least 17 points, two more than any other team in the NFL. It’s almost like the Falcons spent years looking for the perfect way to lose a game in inexplicable fashion, painted their masterpiece in Super Bowl LI, and have struggled to recreate that art in lower-stakes environments.

If Vincent Van Gogh can lose it and cut off his left ear at 35, then I hate to see what Ryan will become if he has to go beyond this season with Quinn as his coach. This is not the legacy you’d like to see for players the caliber of Ryan and Julio, but the fact is the Falcons are best known for the games they’ve artfully lost than anything they’ve ever won.

Sunday was just the latest exhibit, but unlikely the last.

2018 NFL Predictions

In last year’s NFL predictions, I invoked my inner Nihilist Arby’s and expected the 2017 season to be an inevitable death march towards another New England Super Bowl win. At least we didn’t have to worry about a 19-0 season as some predicted, because the Chiefs, the team I kept saying was best equipped to knock off the Pats, won in Foxboro on opening night. That gave fans some hope, but the alarming number of major injuries, especially at quarterback, led to a pretty disappointing season where fourth-quarter comebacks were way down. There were only 54 4QC wins after there were 68 to 73 in every season from 2012 to 2016. The games just weren’t as competitive or interesting last season.

It wasn’t the same to watch the Colts without Andrew Luck, the Packers without Aaron Rodgers, or the Giants without Odell Beckham Jr. Hell, I even missed the annual Ryan Tannehill Breakout Watch in Miami. Ezekiel Elliott was suspended for six games in Dallas. The 49ers didn’t really matter until the Jimmy Garoppolo trade happened. It wasn’t very fun to watch Hue Jackson and DeShone Kizer kill Cleveland’s chances of covering the spread each week, let alone win a game. Houston was finally an exciting team to watch again, but Deshaun Watson was lost for the season just 6.5 games into a thrilling rookie campaign that was going to shatter records.

That was the low point for me last November, which led to me writing about the Seven-Year Itch. Seven seasons covering the NFL full time, maybe I was starting to burn out and lost some interest. But then I took to betting on games and that reinvigorated my interest in a major way. A lot of early success also helped, but just like the NFL, success is hard to sustain.

Some of my predictions are a little too on the nose, but I purposely do it for fun. Sometimes my more specific ones end up on the money too, because I feel like the NFL runs in familiar narratives and sometimes I can see them coming months in advance. Some of my best predictions for the playoffs come later in the season, such as this one from November last year:

I did not see Nick Foles Super Bowl MVP coming though. I think the injuries led way to some teams making playoff pushes after being out of the tournament for a long time. The Jaguars, Rams, Bills, and Titans all ended playoff droughts of 8+ seasons. (I only have two of those teams returning to the tournament in 2018.) This is also how you end up with a season where Case Keenum is No. 1 in passing DVOA and Foles is the reigning Super Bowl MVP. I also think the injuries to so many key players had a big impact on passing numbers declining a bit after several years of constantly setting new benchmarks across the league. I expect to see those numbers go back up this year.

Scoring in general may go up a bit if the NFL doesn’t get a good grasp on its new helmet rule, or the flags where a routine sack is now roughing the passer. Just think of how many drives can continue with an automatic first down that otherwise would have ended in the past. We also may see more catches ruled a catch (Jesse James Rule), though that’s a necessary change that’s a few years overdue. I’ll wait and see on how the refs, which include four new officials, adjust to all these changes, but I’m leaning towards it making defense more difficult. Remember, the last game we watched, Super Bowl 52, featured a record amount of yardage (1,151 yards). The game is changing.

There are plenty of interesting storylines to follow again, but I think all the quarterback movement is what makes 2018 so compelling. Many teams either upgraded or at least made their offense more interesting this season. We’ll get to see rookie Sam Darnold in Week 1 with the Jets. Maybe we’ll see Baker Mayfield and Josh Rosen later this season, but at least Tyrod Taylor and Sam Bradford are upgrades to what Cleveland and Arizona fielded last year. Rodgers, Luck, and Tannehill are back. Can Garoppolo and Watson possibly deliver such amazing numbers in a full season? All that connected movement with Kirk Cousins to Minnesota, Keenum to Denver, Alex Smith to Washington, and Patrick Mahomes taking over in Kansas City makes all four of those offenses more interesting in 2018. That’s a dozen teams right there, and we still have the old guard (Brady, Brees, Ben, Rivers, Eli), the middle aged (Ryan, Flacco, Stafford, Cam, Dalton, Wilson), the strangely similar Bortles and Carr, Year 4 for Winston/Mariota, and Year 3 for the 2016 class (Goff, Wentz, Dak). I just named the whole league except Buffalo and Mitchell Trubisky, but at least I’m excited to see the latter this season. The other makes me want to Eat Arby’s until the sweet, cold embrace of death engulfs me.

Fortunately, we’ve made it to opening night with the biggest injury losses only including Hunter Henry, Jason Verrett, Jake Ryan, Marqise Lee, Jerick McKinnon, Derrius Guice, and A.Q. Shipley. Travis Frederick’s non-football illness is also worth mentioning. Injuries are inevitable, but at least the season is starting with many of the key guys ready to go.

I think 2018 will be a much more competitive (and ultimately better) season than 2017. So let’s get into the predictions. I started with a different division just because I was sick of always starting this thing with New England up first.

AFC NORTH

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)

Amazon does a great “All or Nothing” series in following an NFL team through the season. The 2018 Steelers feel like an All or Nothing team to me. This is either the year where this team gets over the hump to reach a Super Bowl (doesn’t necessarily mean they win it), or it’s all going to fall apart in spectacular fashion. The offensive-driven “Killer B” era that really started in 2014 has yet to put together a great playoff run, and this is Year 5 of that. I think the Five-Year Rule may apply here even though Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger have been together since 2007.

This team is perfect for TV since there’s always so much drama whether it’s public comments about contracts, the Roethlisberger-Todd Haley saga, Facebook Live disasters, or looking ahead to opponents. There are also on-field concerns with the stars of this team. Maybe an aging Roethlisberger finds an injury bug he can’t shake off. Maybe Antonio Brown falls off, not because of the Madden Curse, but just because his high-volume output over the last five seasons is ridiculously hard to sustain and does leave him more susceptible to injury. He had a rough training camp in staying on the practice field. At least he showed up, unlike Le’Veon Bell, who remains a holdout. Either way I think we’re going to learn the name James Conner a lot more this season, and he has always looked impressive in the brief opportunities we’ve seen him. Ultimately, I predict Bell returns in a timely manner to play, because holdouts like this almost never come to fruition when real game checks are on the line.

You know I can write the same thing about the Steelers every year and it’d be right on the money. In order to get home-field advantage, can they avoid playing down to the competition like that loss in Chicago last season? I actually think they’re going to fall to that trap again in Tampa Bay in Week 3 with Ryan Fitzpatrick starting. However, I do have a revenge tour predicted with wins over the Jaguars and Patriots that lead to the Steelers getting the No. 1 seed on a tie-breaker over the 12-4 Patriots.

Can the Steelers ever get their big three to stay on the field for a full game against New England? The past four meetings have been absurd in this regard.

  • Week 1 2015: Bell was suspended. The Patriots won 28-21.
  • Week 7 2016: Roethlisberger missed one full start due to injury in 2016, and it was the New England game. The Patriots won 27-16.
  • 2016 AFC Championship Game: Bell left in the first half with an injury after six carries. The Steelers lost 36-17.
  • Week 15 2017: Brown was injured in the first half after dropping a touchdown. It was only the second time since 2013 that he had to leave a game due to injury. The Steelers lost 27-24 after a Jesse James touchdown, that would count now (I think) in 2018, was overturned and Roethlisberger threw the worst red-zone pick of his career.

So home-field advantage likely comes down to Week 15 again, but there are plenty of other challenges along the way for the Steelers. I think they can be better equipped to handle the loss of Ryan Shazier than needing to adjust on the fly last December. This team was in major trouble when quarterbacks such as Brett Hundley, Joe Flacco (2017 version), and DeShone Kizer were lighting them up late in the season. The offense had to be about perfect to win those games, and it wasn’t perfect against a tough Jacksonville defense in January. Oh the big three still made outstanding plays and helped the Steelers become the first team in NFL history to lose at home in the playoffs after scoring more than 38 points, but you can’t expect to go anywhere with 45-42 games against Bortles.

That’s why I was surprised that the Steelers went for another wideout (James Washington) and a third-round quarterback (Mason Rudolph) over more immediate defensive help. Morgan Burnett and rookie Terrell Edmunds should help in the secondary, but I think T.J. Watt needs to be a standout in Year 2. If they can get Watt going along with Cameron Heyward for the pass rush, and Joe Haden to improve on his Pittsburgh debut, then there are high-caliber players to work with at each level in this defense.

Sometimes you don’t field your best team when you get to a Super Bowl. You get there because you’ve been good and have a lot of the right pieces in place, but things just haven’t been falling your way. Maybe this is the year the Steelers have everything fall into place, but beating New England (either in Week 15 or in January) has to happen. They can’t expect to avoid them like in 2005, 2008, and 2010. The AFC just isn’t deep enough, which is another reason why this team really needs to capitalize on a Super Bowl if this is indeed the last hurrah for Bell with Ben and Brown.

2. Baltimore Ravens (9-7)

Look, Joe Flacco was trash last season, but Baltimore was still a 4th-and-12 stop away from 10-6 and the playoffs. Then that Andy Dalton touchdown pass in Week 17 happened, the lousy tie-breakers in the NFL were applied to get Buffalo and Tennessee in, and the 9-7 Ravens were at home for the playoffs for the third year in a row.

John Harbaugh can still coach. Alex Collins broke out behind a solid offensive line that gets Marshal Yanda back. The receivers have been upgraded. The defense, which pitched three shutouts last year, still has some great players and gets Tavon Young back in a deep secondary. The special teams are usually great, and Justin Tucker might be the only kicker in the league who is the best player on his team. The problem has been Flacco, who ranked dead last in YPA last season, but he has the team around him to make the playoffs. He also should have the motivation to actually earn some of his contract now that the Ravens drafted Lamar Jackson in the first round. Jackson doesn’t look like he’ll be ready to play this year, so Flacco should have great job security for 2018. If he just plays a little better than he has, then this team is dangerous enough to compete for the Super Bowl, because Harbaugh knows how to play against the top competition in the Patriots and Steelers.

The Ravens have been right in the playoff mix late in the season the last two years, but just couldn’t keep their division rivals out of the end zone in crunch time. Don’t forget the Antonio Brown touchdown on Christmas Day in 2016, then the Boyd touchdown last year. The margin is that small in this league. On the flip side, the Ravens beat up last year on 0-16 Cleveland twice, the Packers without Rodgers, the Colts without Luck, the Texans without Watson, and the Dolphins without Tannehill (or even Jay Cutler). Sometimes the win column can be just as misleading.  But I think the 2018 schedule, especially early, favors Baltimore to have a good start and be in the mix late again.

3. Cincinnati Bengals (8-8)

You want to talk about slim margins and feeling snake-bitten? The Bengals finished 7-9 last year, but blew a 7-point lead in the final four minutes against Green Bay and Pittsburgh, losing by a field goal each time. They also gave up a late touchdown pass to Marcus Mariota in a loss in Tennessee. This team easily could have gone 10-6, and that’s even after a brutal 0-2 start that required the offensive coordinator to be fired. Sure, the Dalton touchdown pass on 4th-and-12 was a miracle play, but maybe the tables would have been reversed with Baltimore had the Bengals gotten to play the Packers and Texans with Brett Hundley and Tom Savage instead of Rodgers and Watson.

I really thought I might have the Bengals in the playoffs, but a tougher schedule has them at 8-8 for me. Still, I think there’s some great potential here with John Ross hopefully producing something after a bagel last year as a top 10 pick. Maybe Tyler Eifert actually stays healthy, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. A.J. Green is still great, the offensive line is revamped and should be much better for Andy Dalton, who had a long stretch of games (Weeks 3-13) last year with numbers quite comparable to none other than Carson Wentz in the same span. The defense, led by Geno Atkins, has some underrated players in Andrew Billings, William Jackson, and Carl Lawson.

Do I think this team is ready to win a playoff game yet? No, but I also think Marvin Lewis should have been fired many years ago. He’ll enter Year 16 with a 0-7 playoff record, a resume that is unrivaled (and unwanted) in NFL history.

4. Cleveland Browns (5-11)

Contrary to what Joe Buck said on FOX during a preseason game, the Browns do not have better Super Bowl odds than the Falcons and Jaguars this year. I see people picking the Browns to make the playoffs, and perhaps crazier things have happened, but at least the 2008 Dolphins (from 1-15 to 11-5) hired a new coach (RIP Tony Sparano) and added a pretty good quarterback (Chad Pennington). The Browns have definitely upgraded the QB position with Tyrod Taylor and No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield, but somehow 1-for-32 Hue Jackson is still there. He still has Gregg Williams aligning the defense in center field on third down, and now we add surly Todd Haley to the mix. It’s a coaching trio nightmare, and I don’t think this is the right group to develop what is actually a pretty respectable roster for a team coming off 0-16.

Personally, I would start Mayfield right away. I think like Myles Garrett in 2017, he was the right pick at No. 1 and will be a good one, but Taylor isn’t a bad option for now too. I’m hoping Josh Gordon is the leading receiver on this team, because he’s a special player when he’s active. But somehow I get the feeling that Jarvis Landry will find a way to get way more targets and catches. The only question is will they come with the value to warrant it? With multiple head coaches and quarterbacks in Miami, Landry produced a lot of the same results for four years, and it was not valuable to his offense, especially relative to other top-tier wide receivers. So that’s definitely something I want to look at with Cleveland this year in how they use Landry. David Njoku is also an exciting young tight end to develop, Antonio Callaway may have been a fourth-round steal, and Duke Johnson is one of the best receiving backs in the league. In fact, Johnson averaged more yards per catch (9.4) than Landry (8.8) last season. Imagine that.

So the quarterback for this team has weapons to work with, an offensive line that looks to have moved on well enough from Joe Thomas’ retirement, and the defense looks pretty solid on paper. I can see the appeal of picking Cleveland to finish around 8-8, but I just think the coaching is still going to hold this team back, and the schedule should be tough. The AFC North is a solid division and the NFC South is one of the best in the league with three playoff teams last year. I think if Tyrod remains the quarterback, then his lack of turnovers should be a godsend to a team that was hurt badly by DeShone Kizer’s turnovers (especially in the red zone and in crunch time) last year. That’s reason enough to think the Browns could play more grind-it-out games with running the ball and defense leading the way to victory.

I just think it’ll have to be a new coach in 2019 leading this team, with budding stars in Mayfield and Garrett, back to winning records in an AFC dying for change.

NFC NORTH

1. Minnesota Vikings (12-4)

My thought process on Minnesota has been simple. Mike Zimmer and his staff have gotten the best out of Teddy Bridgewater (2015), Sam Bradford (2016), and Case Keenum (2017) over the last three years. Kirk Cousins is more consistent and has more sustained success than all three of those players. He’s less likely to be fool’s gold like Keenum last year. What Cousins didn’t have in Washington was a consistent defense, running game, or a healthy squad around him. Yet he still had Washington flirting around .500 for three years in a row. If you give him one of the best rosters in the NFL to work with, then why can’t he also see a boost in play like those other Zimmer quarterbacks have had? And that could be more than enough to push this team all the way after reaching the NFC Championship Game last year.

Now my concern is that the offensive line is not a strength, and Keenum was pretty great (in the regular season at least) at making things happen under pressure. It was one of the biggest advantages to his season since he had positive DVOA under pressure (done three times by a qualified starter since 2010). Play under pressure isn’t as consistent as play without pressure, but Cousins has never been anything special under pressure. He’s more likely to take a sack or do something silly with the ball. So I would be a bit concerned that this is one area where the Vikings may actually be regressing in that the offensive line has allowed a lot of pressure over Zimmer’s tenure. But I do like Cousins as a fit here with Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Just a bit worried about the receiver depth should one of those players get hurt. At least Dalvin Cook returns to the backfield this year.

Defensively, they’re clearly one of the best units in the league, but again, great health last year and that’s hard to repeat. The depth at most positions doesn’t look too promising, so they have to hope all their stars have relatively healthy seasons again. We also need to see more takeaways from this defense. They only had one takeaway in the four losses last year (including none in the playoffs where the Eagles destroyed their historically great third-down defense).

I hope this prediction from March is way off:

I didn’t tweet that to say I want any of those things to happen, but as a comment on how expectations are going to be so high for Cousins this year, and things that could be totally out of his control could make this not work out the way everyone hopes. Consistently winning in the NFL is hard, but I think the Vikings made the right move with Cousins, who was briefly the highest-paid player in the league. I mean real briefly.

That may look like a bargain in a few years, but a failure to return to the playoffs in 2018 will not go over well in Minnesota. This team’s window is now.

2. Green Bay Packers (12-4)

We’ll start with the usual disclaimer: as long as Aaron Rodgers remains healthy, the Packers should be good for double-digit wins. Last season, he broke his collarbone again, so there went Green Bay’s season after eight straight trips to the playoffs.

What’s different this time around? For one, I think the schedule is very favorable, the defense should be at least mediocre under new coordinator Mike Pettine, and those two factors combined with a healthy Rodgers give the team a great shot at 12 wins for the first time since 2014. I still think Minnesota has a better roster, but at least the Packers did some free-agent spending under new GM Brian Gutekunst and added Muhammad Wilkerson and Jimmy Graham. The defensive line could be special and the secondary is loaded with young talent.

This does feel like the weakest the wideouts have been in Rodgers’ time there with Jordy Nelson gone, but maybe one of the youngsters (J’Mon Moore or Equanimeous St. Brown) can step up. Graham should also help in the red zone a lot.

I think the craziest table I put together for FOA 2018 was the way Rodgers’ YPA has dropped off in various splits since 2015 compared to his peak years of 2009-2014 when he was incredible. It’s not fair to hold anyone to not maintaining that standard, but I think he should be at least above the NFL average over the last three years when he hasn’t been. So I’m curious to see what we’ll get this year with new coordinators in town (Joe Philbin came back), a new tight end, a decent RBBC, and hopefully what is great health for his age-35 season.

3. Detroit Lions (7-9)

The Lions have flirted with 7-11 wins for the last five seasons. The final number is basically dependent on how many 4QCs Matthew Stafford leads that season. As predicted, Detroit stunk in close games last year after setting the record with eight 4QC in 2016. Even though the Lions were 9-7 again with better stats, this time it wasn’t enough for the playoffs.

So now there’s a real change with Matt Patricia taking over as head coach. Bill Belichick’s assistants have flopped after leaving him. One of the toughest things to project is just how much of an impact they had versus Belichick’s control in New England. Patricia oversaw some pretty odd defenses the last few years. The Patriots give up a lot of successful plays, but still kept the scoring down after good situational play. I think the bend-but-don’t-break style was already going on in Detroit last year, but we could see even more of it this year. I just don’t think the defense has enough studs after Darius Slay and Ezekiel Ansah to rely on yet.

Fixing the defense and running game has been a common theme in the Stafford era, but it’s going on a decade with no one able to offer a solution. They drafted Kerryon Johnson in the second round, but call me skeptical to trust any Detroit RB after the way things have gone at that position since Barry Sanders retired. The Lions haven’t had a 100-yard individual rusher since Reggie Bush on Thanksgiving in 2013. It’s not like the individual numbers matter, and the Lions have a RBBC in place with Theo Riddick and LeGarrette Blount offering different skillsets. But I just don’t see the Lions suddenly developing a strong running game behind a line that is still best suited to protect the passer.

One thing I really want to see is if Kenny Golladay can be a huge playmaker in his second year. He was cut short by injury as a rookie. I know the projection looks low at 7-9, but remember that Detroit got to sweep the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers last year, a team that often gives them fits when he’s active. He’s back now and the Bears are also better. It’s a tough division. We also know that Detroit just never shows up for the tough games. Stafford’s record as a starter in games against winning teams is now 6-52 (.103). That includes a 4-25 record under Caldwell and a 2-27 record in road games. Hey, at least Detroit beat the Vikings in Minnesota last year.

That’s the legacy that Patricia has to change, but I’m already seeing headlines where he’s discovering just how hard his job is, and the Lions had a pretty uninspiring preseason. I think it’s fair to be skeptical in Year 1 of Patricia.

4. Chicago Bears (6-10)

I did a lot of work on the Bears for FOA 2018, mostly focusing on the impact of a rookie head coach on a young quarterback and how Vic Fangio’s defense will hopefully have more takeaways (fewest picks since 2015). Also how the Bears have been the most injured team under John Fox, so hopefully better health as well. Little did I know that the team would make a huge trade for Khalil Mack right before Week 1. I don’t think it makes a big impact on the W-L record in 2018, but I like the move. Your quarterback is early into his rookie contract, so now is the time to pay an elite defender, which Mack certainly is. Just remember that Oakland’s defense was still often terrible with him, and they only had one winning record in four seasons. That’s why I said he doesn’t move the needle much by himself, but it is a good move for Chicago.

I keep saying 2019 is the year for this team to make the playoff push, because I think it’s going to take time for things to jell under rookie head coach Matt Nagy. Not only did Mack come in late, but Roquan Smith (another great move) signed his rookie deal late because of a weird dispute. With the offense, you’re asking a lot if you think this unit can improve to the level of Nagy’s Chiefs last year or what Sean McVay did for the Rams. Everyone wants to make that Nagy-Trubisky to McVay-Goff comparison, but I did the research on that and most rookie coaches, even offensive-minded ones, don’t do much with a young quarterback like Trubisky. Hell, Ken Whisenhunt barely waited before he benched Matt Leinart for Kurt Warner in 2007 (Arizona). Dennis Erickson didn’t get anything out of bust Rick Mirer. Those pairings don’t usually work out well, and McVay-Goff was such a historic improvement that you just shouldn’t expect it to repeat again.

Also, Trubisky does have a lot of room to grow. He was one of the least effective quarterbacks in the league last year with the highest failed completion rate and the worst ALEX. So Nagy may not be the best to bring out the aggression in him given his work with Alex Smith in Kansas City. But he does bring a better offensive system and this team should be able to run the ball well again. They also greatly upgraded their weapons, but let’s keep a few things in mind. Allen Robinson may very well be a one-year wonder (2015) and he’s coming back from a torn ACL. Taylor Gabriel is more of a role player (fills the Albert Wilson role for Nagy) than big contributor. Trey Burton was more of a TE3 in Philly and never had to be a TE1, but I would expect a career year. Anthony Miller, though intriguing, is a second-round rookie. It’s asking a lot for all of these guys to come together to produce a great offense right away. Like I said in the book, the Bears could finish 8-8 and still be lucky to finish 10th in the conference. But that’s why I keep saying 2019 is when Chicago should finally be back in the playoff picture.

And now with Mack to boot.

AFC EAST

1. New England Patriots (12-4)

I don’t have the rest of the AFC East winning more than five games. The division is a foregone conclusion with this team — we’re talking about the Super Bowl with New England.

So what are the new stories this time around? Tom Brady is 41 years old, which is the age when Brett Favre’s body finally broke down. Of course, in 2010 Favre didn’t report until mid-August and his diet likely didn’t consist of the atrocities that Brady and his shady doc pass off as food. Age 41 was also the last good year for Warren Moon in Seattle, so we are getting deeper into unchartered territory here with Brady. Brian Hoyer is the backup rather than Jimmy Garoppolo now, but you get the sense that Bill Belichick can still win with Hoyer. Could he make Hoyer look like Nick Foles? That I don’t think will happen, but they could survive a stretch if something happened to Brady.

It was about to look like a repeat of 2004-05 when the Patriots repeated and lost both coordinators in the offseason. But the Eagles shut the door on this repeat opportunity, and Josh McDaniels weaseled his way back to Belichick. Matt Patricia is gone, but that may not be much of a loss after the defense was shredded in the team’s four losses last season. I can’t help but feel like this is the weakest New England defense on paper in years after the latest departure of Malcolm Butler from the secondary. However, the secondary still looks like the strongest part of the defense with all the veterans in place (the McCourty brothers, Patrick Chung, Stephon Gilmore). That doesn’t say much for the front seven, but at least Hightower is back.

The attention on New England right now is that the wide receiver depth chart basically consists of Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Phillip Dorsett. That’s not reassuring, and it’s a far cry from having Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola like last year. However, Julian Edelman will be back after a four-game suspension. In the meantime, they still have the best tight end in NFL history and some capable receiving backs. Those guys will put in a lot of work in September, and Hogan may even benefit from the targets sure to come his way. Patterson will probably take one bubble screen to the house, though he is a limited receiver. The burning irony here is that Patterson and Dorsett are both first-round picks. We heard Patriots fans for years criticize other quarterbacks for playing with first-round receivers, but now Patterson and Dorsett will be used as part of Brady’s latest burden. Gee, it’s like whether or not a player is good actually matters too. With Gronk, Edelman, Hogan and the backs, this offense will have enough firepower down the stretch to score with anyone.

In the end, it comes down to what it always comes down to with the Patriots: that coin-flip finish in the postseason. Can a team get pressure on Brady in the fourth quarter? Can the opposing quarterback lead a game-winning drive against Belichick’s defense that has only blown 18 fourth-quarter leads in 17 seasons? As I posted after SB 52, getting more pressure on Brady in the fourth quarter in the playoffs is the key. The Broncos (2015) and Eagles (SB 52) did so, but the other defenses did not.

I think Houston in Week 1 is a very interesting matchup as the Texans should have won that game last season, but dropped an interception late and gave up a game-winning touchdown to Cooks. I don’t think the Chiefs will have the offensive maturity (Mahomes is raw) to win in a postseason setting this year. The Jaguars have the defense, but can they trust Blake Bortles to throw on first down? I actually like Jacksonville to win that game in Week 2. I also think the Steelers get revenge on the Patriots in Week 15, which is why New England will be the No. 2 seed instead of No. 1. So like last year, Week 15 at Pittsburgh should define the regular season for this team. Oh, and I also snuck in another loss at Miami the week before. Otherwise the Patriots should finish 5-1 in division games.

This feels like the most vulnerable that New England has been in years, but I don’t think the conference, especially in the division, is ready to overthrow them from another first-round bye just yet.

2. Miami Dolphins (5-11)

I got into it with Miami fans again last season. It was probably an extension from 2016 when I said Miami was one of the worst 10-6 teams ever (supported by data). After the Dolphins were stomped out of the playoffs by Pittsburgh, I really wanted to see how Ryan Tannehill would fare in Year 2 with Adam Gase as his head coach. Of course, we never got to see that, but we were treated to Jay Cutler throwing 3-yard passes on third-and-14 to Jarvis Landry. The Cutler experiment never worked and the Dolphins were their post-Dan Marino irrelevant selves again last season.

Of course, the team was 4-2 at one point, but I think I may have stirred the pot again by calling them the worst 4-2 team ever (again, supported by data). This team was manhandled 40-6 to the Jets and Saints, only scoring that touchdown on the final play of the game against the Jets. The wins came via a missed field goal by the Chargers (typical), a 16-10 shitshow over the Mariota-less Titans, a 20-17 win over Atlanta after a tipped interception late in scoring territory, and a 14-point 4QC over the lowly Jets. You knew Gase wasn’t going to win every single one-score game ever, but the Dolphins only won twice the rest of the season. Sure, the win over New England was very impressive, but the Dolphins seem to do that often to that team in Miami. At least that was a highlight win for Gase’s first two years.

I want to believe Tannehill can come back better than ever, but two straight season-ending knee injuries is scary stuff. But he at least played well in the preseason and is healthy now. The move away from Landry may also be a blessing in disguise if it gets DeVante Parker, Kenny Stills, Danny Amendola, and rookie tight end Mike Gesicki more involved instead of what felt like force-feeding targets to Landry at times. Frank Gore and Kenyan Drake make for a pretty solid running back duo, and the defense isn’t without talent either. Cameron Wake can still get after the quarterback and Minkah Fitzpatrick made a ton of sense in the first round.

To be perfectly honest, Miami was my go-to team just to help some teams accumulate wins instead of having teams under 3-13. So I had them split with the Bills and Jets, for example. I also ended up putting the Dolphins at 0-8 on the road.

It may not make sense to most fans for a team to lose Landry and Ndamukong Suh and get better, but I’ve honestly never thought either of those players moved the needle much. So in a quarterback-driven league, Miami likely breaks .500 in a true breakout year by Tannehill — a tall order in Year 7 of a career. I’m not counting on that to happen obviously, but I’m at least able to see why the pieces are here for an improvement to happen. So take a bow, Miami fans, because I won’t surprise myself if I’m off by 4+ games on this one.

3. New York Jets (4-12)

One preseason prediction I got right last year was that the Jets would draft USC quarterback Sam Darnold in 2018. I thought it was going to be the first overall pick, but instead they moved up to third and got a break from the other New York team when they took the running back instead. I think much like when Leonard Williams (USC too) fell to the Jets in the draft, Darnold just fell and they made the no-brainer move.

GM Mike Maccagnan’s drafts have not been very good since 2015. At least he didn’t wait long to let the stain of Christian Hackenberg in the second round set in, but Bryce Petty, Devin Smith, and Lorenzo Mauldin haven’t worked out well either. He absolutely needs Darnold to be a hit.

I don’t know if the quarterback situation is exactly improved in 2018, because Josh McCown really had a career year in many ways last season. He helped Robby Anderson develop as a vertical threat, and Jermaine Kearse rebounded from a terrible 2016 in Seattle. Terrelle Pryor was a total bust in Washington, but maybe he can get back on track in New York. The leading receiver should be Quincy Enunwa, who looked impressive in 2016 before missing all of last year with an injury. The Jets are still nothing to write home about with the line or at tight end. Isaiah Crowell and Bilal Powell are serviceable in the backfield, but again, nothing special there.

So Darnold isn’t exactly going to start with a strong cast, but he should at least have a respectable defense. The Jets have really revamped the secondary after drafting two safeties in 2017 and adding Trumaine Johnson from the Rams. Morris Claiborne has improved from his Dallas days, but this isn’t a secondary that any of the top quarterbacks will fear throwing against. Williams lost Sheldon Richardson a year ago and now Muhammad Wilkerson went to Green Bay, so that defensive line isn’t what it used to be.

The Jets are still another draft or two away from really competing, but you just hope that Darnold shows improvement throughout the season and the team is ready to strike by the time Tom Brady finally retires in New England.

4. Buffalo Bills (3-13)

While the Jets seem to have a plan, can anyone explain what the hell the Bills are doing? They have over $50M in dead money going out to players. The gutting of this roster that once featured some impressive young talent continued in 2018. Some things were out of Buffalo’s control, such as Eric Wood retiring from injury, or when Richie Incognito finally flew over the cuckoo’s nest. But the draft was in Buffalo’s control, and the idea of a bold trade was floated around in March. They wouldn’t possibly trade up for Josh Allen at No. 7, right? That’s just crazy.

Welp, they did. So like I said, imagine gutting your roster, getting rid of Tyrod Taylor (your best QB since Jim Kelly), signing AJ McCarron, trading up to draft Josh Allen, cutting McCarron, and starting Nathan Peterman in Week 1. That’s where we are with this team. Whether it’s Peterman or Allen at quarterback, how in the world could this offense be effective? The offensive line has looked terrible after losing Wood, Incognito and trading Cordy Glenn to Cincinnati (another move that didn’t have to happen). You have a low catch rate receiver in Kelvin Benjamin who doesn’t have much value outside of trying to win jump balls. You have a possession receiver in Zay Jones who was horrific last year in catching 36.5% of his passes. Jeremy Kerley and Andre Holmes are low-production journeymen. Charles Clay is just a solid tight end. LeSean McCoy, assuming he faces no legal or suspension issues, is still quite good, but will see an inferior line in front of him this season. It’s just going to be one big bag of suck, relying on even more fluky turnovers to keep coming from a defense that actually wasn’t that good last year. At least I like Tre’Davious White a lot.

So while the Bills ended their playoff drought last year, that’s more about the NFL’s weak tie-breaker system that lets a team that was outscored by 57 points get in over two much stronger teams in Baltimore and the Chargers. This wasn’t a good team last year and it’s by large gotten worse this year. That’s why I have the Bills with the worst record in the league.

I know I picked Buffalo (and the Jets too) to finish 2-14 last year and was way off by the final record, but I think the fans who turned on Taylor after the New Orleans game are going to wish they had someone who can make something happen under pressure and doesn’t turn the ball over like crazy. Peterman’s not the long-term answer. Allen should start Week 1, but the fact that he’s not just further confirms the fact that trading for him was absurd. You make that move if you’re getting Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck to be the savior of your team. The kid who couldn’t find the broad side of a barn at Wyoming is not that type of prospect.

Maybe the day will come where I have to eat crow on Allen in the NFL. Trust me, Buffalo having a good quarterback and actually being worth watching would be fine with me. I’m beyond tired of New England ruling the AFC East. But I think this is just another draft pick that explains why the Patriots continue to dominate this division while the Bills are a laughingstock.

NFC EAST

1. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)

We’re still in the longest stretch in NFL history without a repeat champion (none since 2003-04 Patriots). We can thank the Eagles for keeping that alive by beating the Patriots last year, but can they repeat themselves now? You have to believe the Eagles are right in the mix in the NFC again, because this is one of the few teams that can reasonably finish in the top 10 on offense and defense. They have balance.

But I don’t really think there’s much that separates the Eagles from the other contenders in the NFC right now (Rams, Vikings, Packers, Falcons, and Saints). That should be a nice six-team battle all year long. Attrition might just win out. The Eagles did a great job of surviving injuries to Carson Wentz, Darren Sproles, and Jason Peters last year. They’ll get those players back, though Wentz’s return is TBD, and Super Bowl hero Corey Clement showed a lot of promise in Sproles’ absence last year. The losses aren’t too bad at all with Mike Wallace replacing Torrey Smith and Michael Bennett replacing Vinny Curry in the pass rush. You could really say first-round pick Derek Barnett is replacing Curry, which just goes to show how loaded that DL rotation is with Fletcher Cox, Haloti Ngata, Brandon Graham, and Chris Long. The rest of the defense is nowhere near as intimidating, and they did lose slot corner Patrick Robinson. At least we should get to see 2017 second-round pick Sidney Jones play this season.

One thing I will say that separates the Eagles from those other NFC teams is they have the best backup quarterback in the league right now with Nick Foles. The Super Bowl MVP will start the season tonight, but his career has been so up and down that it’s hard to say what to expect from him. I also think it’s reasonable to say that his postseason run was so good that Wentz could play 15 more years and never match it. So even if the Eagles return to the playoffs, it’s not like we know what to expect there given that Wentz wasn’t able to participate last season.

The lack of track record here makes this prediction that much more difficult. The Eagles won the Super Bowl after missing the playoffs for three years. That’s very rare, and teams close to that don’t always return the following year (see 1982 49ers or 2002 Patriots). It’s not like Doug Pederson or Wentz are finished products yet. The offensive-minded Pederson has to show he can replace Frank Reich and John DeFilippo on his coaching staff without missing a beat.

As for Wentz, while he made big improvements on his rookie year, I didn’t think his season was MVP caliber. I think the way Foles performed in his absence further cemented the thought that he shouldn’t be an MVP front-runner yet. Wentz only completed 60.2 percent of his passes with 7.5 YPA. There’s a ton of room for improvement there. The stat where Wentz soared was TD%, which was heavily influenced by the great field position he worked with. That’s hard to sustain year after year, so look for his TD% to drop this year. What was more impressive was how he handled third down and the red zone. Very strong performances there that will need to continue for the Eagles to keep a leg up on the competition. The knee injury shouldn’t be ignored either. It’s believed that it’s not until that second season back when a player is truly 100 percent. For example, Donovan McNabb tore his ACL in 2006, and his 2008 season was better than his 2007. Tom Brady’s 2010 was better than his 2009. With Wentz not returning in Week 1, which I thought was pretty likely given the ACL return timetable, we can’t assume there won’t be any ill effects from that injury this season.

I’m not going on some anti-Wentz rant here, but I am going to be logical about the Eagles’ chances this season. Are teams quarterbacked by Goff, Cousins, Rodgers, Ryan and Brees any worse off than one with Wentz coming back from a major knee injury? I don’t think so, though I do think Goff is a clear step down from that pack so far. Is Jay Ajayi and the backfield better than having Gurley, Cook, Green Bay’s RBBC, Freeman/Coleman, or Kamara/Ingram? I think Rodgers has the short end of the stick there, but those are favorable backfields for the other teams. Defensively, again I think Rodgers gets the short end, but he’s also the most talented QB here, and the other players have potentially strong defenses too. If you give a Ryan or Brees or Cousins a defense for a change, then why couldn’t they do something great too this season? The NFC playoffs basically came down to a few miracle completions (the deflected Foles completion before halftime that wasn’t picked off and the Minnesota Miracle) and one disastrous red-zone sequence with an incompletion (Ryan to Julio). I also don’t think the Eagles have the best receivers out of this group of six teams (tight ends included), though I did find the Dallas Goedert draft pick to be very smart.

While I’d be a bit surprised if the Eagles regressed out of the postseason, I don’t think they enter 2018 with any major advantages over their top competition. Winning the ring last year was great, but as this era has shown, repeating is extremely difficult.

2. Dallas Cowboys (9-7)

So there’s that. At 5-3, Dallas was in okay shape last season, losing a couple of high-scoring heartbreakers at home to the Rams and Packers. Then the Atlanta game happened. Not only did that begin Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension, but left tackle Tyron Smith missed the next two games. The Falcons, Eagles and Chargers destroyed Dallas 92-22 in a three-week period. The Cowboys won four of their last five, but lost a big game (with Elliott and Smith back) to Seattle in Week 16 to miss the playoffs. A friendly reminder that the Cowboys scored 18 points in the last two weeks with Elliott back, so you can’t put all the struggles on “Dak’s nothing without Zeke.”

Now obviously Elliott and Smith are very important to this offense, but the offense still had talent without those players and could not score for three weeks. That also doesn’t excuse the pathetic defense that could not get a second-half stop for three weeks. Jason Garrett seemed to completely forget how to coach for those three weeks. Case in point, how do you keep letting Smith’s backup, Chaz Green, get beat for six sacks by the same move by Adrian Clayborn in Atlanta? That was a nightmare stretch for Dallas, the No. 1 seed in 2016.

Prescott’s second season certainly wasn’t on par with his rookie year, but it overall wasn’t that bad for a sophomore effort. I think with Smith and Elliott back this year, this offense has the potential to still be very good. Dez Bryant and Jason Witten were no longer getting separation or YAC. Prescott never had a good connection with Dez even in 2016, so I think they get over that loss. I’m just not convinced that Tavon Austin, Allen Hurns, and rookie Michael Gallup are the right trio of receivers to make up for those losses. They also didn’t fill the hole at tight end, but Rico Gathers has looked impressive at times in the past. Maybe he’s the Witten replacement, but we’ll just have to see.

Honestly, I’m surprised the Cowboys didn’t draft tight end Dallas Goedert in the second round. The Eagles just snagged him ahead of Dallas. When I mentioned this on Twitter in the preseason, there was this huge backlash as if Dallas could do no wrong in wanting left guard Connor Williams instead. “They never wanted Goedert” was a common response. How do we know Williams is going to work out? What if Goedert goes on to be a great tight end for your big rival? I don’t see the logic in how ignoring a potentially great player at a position you clearly needed is a good thing for Dallas. The offensive line was already supposed to be a strength, so why not fix tight end? We’ll see how it shakes out, though now the line doesn’t look so hot with the Travis Frederick health news. Always interesting in Dallas.

This is going to be Garrett’s eighth full* season as the head coach in Dallas. He has yet to reach a conference championship game. If it wasn’t for Marvin Lewis’ tenure in Cincinnati, I would say this just doesn’t happen in NFL history, but it shouldn’t happen in Dallas where expectations are always high.

*Well, we’ll see if it’s a full season. His eighth Week 1 at least.

If Dallas finishes with a losing record this year, I don’t see how this team doesn’t finally move on at head coach. They’re going to end up wasting Prescott during his rookie contract.

3. Washington Redskins (8-8)

My dark horse for most surprising team in 2018 would probably be Washington. I know 8-8 doesn’t sound like much when the Redskins were 7-9 last year, but that’s just because I was ultra conservative with picking wins and losses on their schedule.

What if Alex Smith, coming off his finest season yet, is actually a solid addition at quarterback? Personally, I would have paid Kirk Cousins, who is younger and perhaps hasn’t peaked yet, but this team basically burned that bridge already. Smith was a decent rebound option. I think he has a solid trio of wide receivers, gets to play with Vernon Davis again (you stay healthy too, Jordan Reed), and Chris Thompson is a receiving back that Smith should fall in love with quickly. Oh yeah, they also added Adrian Peterson after Derrius Guice tore his ACL, but at least Washington is a better fit than New Orleans for Peterson.

The defense has a pretty solid mixture of young players and veterans. Just imagine for once if this team actually stays healthy. Jay Gruden has dealt with some of the worst injury luck of any coach I’ve studied. So if you can get Smith to continue his low-turnover, somewhat efficient level of play, and the defense improves, then you’re talking about a team that can hang with just about anyone. The Redskins should have beaten the Chiefs and Saints last year, but Josh Doctson dropped a game-winning touchdown in the end zone and the Saints made a ridiculous 15-point comeback late in the game.

Washington might sneak up on some people this year, but at least this is one that would make some sense.

4. New York Giants (4-12)

Look, with a 37-year-old Eli Manning near the end of his rope, I don’t know how the Giants could pass on a quarterback for a running back. Even if Saquon Barkley is the real deal, this team had its pick of Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, and yes, even Josh Allen with the No. 2 pick. I was always strongly against the Giants making the Barkley pick, because it’s a replaceable position where you can easily find production anywhere. It’s a position that is increasingly going to a committee approach to help with fatigue and feature specific skillsets (receiving, blocking, goal line). It’s a glamour position that doesn’t bring in rings like it used to. Did the Giants win a Super Bowl with the great Tiki Barber? No, he retired and they won it the next year with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw. They won it again four years later with a fairly weak running game too. Why? The quarterback was at his peak, but Peak Eli was seven years ago.

Maybe Pat Shurmur has better success in his second stint as a head coach, but I think he’ll have to look for a quarterback again next year. If Eli can’t improve in this offense, then it’s definitely time to move on. It’s actually a pretty attractive offense for a quarterback with Odell Beckham, Sterling Shepard, Evan Engram, and if Barkley is as good as advertised. They made some adjustments to the o-line with Nate Solder and rookie left guard Will Hernandez.

I think the defense is still pretty suspect after losing Jason Pierre-Paul. Eli Apple hasn’t worked out yet as a high draft pick. At least they have pieces in place such as Landon Collins, Janoris Jenkins and Olivier Vernon, but it’s not one of the stronger defenses for the Giants.

So I still see this team finishing in last place. If Shurmur can work some magic with the talent that we know Eli has (it just doesn’t show up consistently like it did for his brother), then maybe there’s a rebound here. But just remember, the 1981 Saints drafted George Rogers first overall. He was about as impressive as he could be for a rookie, finishing with the most carries (378) and rushing yards (1,674) in the league. He also scored 13 touchdowns and was first-team All-Pro and Offensive Rookie of the Year. Oh yeah, the Saints also finished dead last in scoring and were a 4-12 team. It’s not that important of a position.

Barkley’s going to give us highlights that Orleans Darkwa and Wayne Gallman could only dream of, but from a team building perspective, this looks like a draft the Giants will regret.

AFC SOUTH

1. Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6)

The AFC South was the toughest division for me to predict. I think it’s the one where the four teams are the closest together, and has some of the biggest question marks on star players returning from injury or a limited sample of NFL play.

In the end, I have the Jaguars repeating after a really strong 5-0 start before things cool down. I think at some point last year I compared the 2017 Jaguars to the 2006 Bears, but what if they were the 2005 Bears and the 2018 team is the 2006 Super Bowl team from Chicago? Either way, it’s a reference to Blake Bortles having Rex Grossman’s erratic play and relying on the running game to pound out carries and the defense to just be incredible.

Teams like this usually don’t sustain success in the NFL, because it’s just harder to be that great on defense year after year than it is on offense. We’ve seen this happen in Denver just recently. It’s also a fact that Jacksonville picked up 20 sacks in two games last year against bad teams starting quarterbacks not named Andrew Luck or Deshaun Watson.  That made those four games, all easy Jacksonville wins, much easier than they should be this year with those players back.

Bortles loved throwing drag routes last year, which Marqise Lee was great on (the other Jacksonville receivers were terrible). Lee is out for the season after tearing his ACL. The Jaguars survived Allen Robinson’s ACL tear in Week 1 just fine last year after Keelan Cole stepped up. They have Dede Westbrook too and added Donte Moncrief, but it’s not a well-developed passing offense. Austin Seferian-Jenkins is the TE1 and he was very ineffective with the Jets last year. Leonard Fournette should still be a workhorse, but keep in mind that the Jaguars were dominant in the three games he missed. He’s not a top-tier back yet.

It’s not like the defense still can’t be great, but I just don’t see the same dominance happening again. They were also very healthy last year, which is always important.

One thing I found interesting was the lack of talk about Doug Marrone last year. He finally got production out of a talented roster that Gus Bradley was wasting. Then I saw the AFC Championship Game where Marrone kept trying to run for a yard on every first down to get out of New England with a win. Yeah, we know that’s not going to work, and eventually the Jaguars were doomed like so many before them that played conservatively against the Patriots.

Then on Wednesday, I saw an article where Marrone said he wants zero turnovers from Bortles this season. Now as a goal on each Sunday, that’s a reasonable request of your quarterback. However, I hope Marrone doesn’t actually think any quarterback could get through a whole season without several turnovers. It’s just not feasible. Truly the worst part about the article was when Marrone said he would not exchange five more interceptions from Bortles if it meant an extra 15 touchdown passes. Are you kidding me? What coach would turn down that kind of trade-off? That’s a guaranteed +105 points for the offense assuming all extra points are made. As for the five interceptions, that’s 35  opportunity points your offense missed out on, and 35 points that may go to the other team in return. So worst-case scenario you’re looking at a net -70 points from the picks, which would still leave you +35 on the scoreboard. And when you expect your defense to be great, you don’t expect to give up five touchdowns on those picks.

It’s just frustrating to see coaches talk about turnovers like this. The Jaguars lost two games by a FG last year, and another one to Tennessee by 5 points. Just one extra touchdown in those games means a 13-3 finish and first-round bye.

Long story short, and #MylesJackWasntDown aside, I don’t expect Marrone to outwit Belichick any time soon, but maybe Calais Campbell can come up with a late strip-sack on Brady to make him look like he did. It’s all about finishing in this league and the Jaguars just didn’t put New England away. Lesson learned, hopefully.

2. Houston Texans (9-7)

J.J. Watt coming back from a major injury would usually be a huge deal, but we had that story last year and he just got hurt again. This team is about Deshaun Watson now after we got a brief glimpse of what could have been the greatest rookie quarterback season ever until a non-contact ACL injury in practice ended it.

Watson was electrifying last season. The Texans scored an extra 21 points per game with him compared to Tom Savage and T.J. Yates. It was only 6.5 games, but Watson had the highest DVOA without pressure since 2010, and the highest pressure rate in Football Outsiders’ database since 2010. He was on pace to rush for over 500 yards too. The TD% was a ridiculous 9.3 percent, which will surely go down this year, but to what exactly? That’s why I’m anticipating Watson’s season as much as any young quarterback’s season that I’ve ever seen.

Watson is the main reason I’m picking the Texans to return to the playoffs, but it also helps to be in the AFC where nine wins are probably good enough. The return of Watt and Whitney Mercilus could really help out a defense that struggled last year. Remember, for all of Watson’s brilliance, the defense couldn’t stop Brady and Wilson at the end of those games. So while I don’t think Houston is ready to overtake the division just yet, there is arguably more potential with this team than any in the league given what a healthy Watson and Watt could mean for both sides of the ball. I’m just hesitant to go above 9-7 based on a sample of 6.5 games from the quarterback and the fact that Watt hasn’t been at a dominant level since the 2015 season.

3. Indianapolis Colts (8-8)

I know, eight wins sound like a lot for a team that has a rookie head coach and arguably the worst non-quarterback roster in the NFL. That quarterback also hasn’t played since 2016 and was very shy about throwing downfield in the preseason (I wouldn’t worry about that yet until he does it in real games.) Drafting a guard with the 6th pick isn’t the most exciting addition in the world either.

But hear me out.

The 2017 Colts also had a pretty trash roster, Chuck Pagano was the head coach, Jacoby Brissett had to learn on the fly to start 15 games, and that team should have been way better than 4-12.

The 2017 Colts lost seven games after leading at halftime, the second-highest total in NFL history (1979 49ers/1990 Broncos – 8). Indianapolis blew five fourth-quarter leads, two more than any other team in 2017. The defense couldn’t hold the lead and the offense often went into the tank after halftime.

If — and it’s a big if — Luck returns at the level he has played in the past, then he can carry this team to at least twice that win total. He likely would have had this team with 8-9 wins last year, because he is great at finishing games off. The Colts’ problems under Pagano were usually the days where they were just blown out so badly right away on both sides of the ball that even Luck couldn’t dig out of the hole.

Frank Reich is a fresh set of eyes that the Colts needed after enough of the Pagano era. He wasn’t the first hire in mind, but he very well may be better than Josh McDaniels would have been anyway. But this all comes back to getting Luck back to throwing downfield and extending plays at a level that few in the league can emulate. I don’t like the weapons much at all. I think going overkill with the tight end position (Jack Doyle AND Eric Ebron?) is the wrong move here, because Luck likes his wideouts usually, and T.Y. Hilton is about all he has left anymore. To be fair, Ryan Grant had some decent metrics with Washington and might work out, but this is a pretty thin receiving corps on paper.

It’s not likely going to be a pretty season for Indy, but at least Luck is back. The last time we saw him in a game that mattered, he led a 17-point comeback against a Jacksonville defense that was starting most of the talent it has now. He definitely has to be conscious of getting rid of the ball more quickly at times, but as long as Reich doesn’t have him totally neutered in this return, I think the Colts stay in the playoff race all year long.

4. Tennessee Titans (7-9)

I think the Titans are hurt the most by the changes in the AFC South this year. This team doesn’t have an incredible defense like the one in Jacksonville, and Marcus Mariota’s down year puts him behind what Andrew Luck and Deshaun Watson can bring to their teams. The Titans also just about never beat Indy when the right quarterback is under center there (going back to 2009). Houston beat Tennessee 57-14 with Watson last year, but lost 24-13 in the rematch.

So I think that alone can change that 9-7 record into 7-9, but I am interested to see if Mariota picks things up now that Mike Mularkey is gone. It won’t be rookie coach Mike Vrabel, who has little resume to speak of coaching-wise, making the big impact there, but new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur. He was Matt Ryan’s position coach for his 2016 MVP season and the offensive coordinator with the Rams last year under Sean McVay. Now I think projecting a McVay-type impact is a bit shaky, but if it means more play-action passing for Mariota, then that could be a great thing for the offense. I also think Corey Davis should show much more at wide receiver and Dion Lewis was a good pickup to the backfield.

Malcolm Butler was a good signing in the offseason on defense, and safety Kevin Byard had the breakout year I expected him to last season. The secondary will likely be the best part of the defense, but it still doesn’t look to have the makings of a great unit.

Lack of greatness is really a roster-wide problem with the Titans right now. There’s enough here for Vrabel to get to 9-7 as a first-year coach, but I think that’s more of a ceiling than the floor for this team.

NFC SOUTH

1. Atlanta Falcons (12-4)

A 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI against the 2016 Patriots — didn’t hold up. A first-and-goal at the 9, down 15-10 to the 2017 Eagles — didn’t get in the end zone. Two of the most memorable plays in those games were passes that should have been intercepted, but somehow ended up as completions for the Patriots (Julian Edelman on the game-tying drive) and Eagles (Torrey Smith before halftime). In between those games, we charted just five passes where a defense dropped an interception that turned into a completion for the opponent. Five times all season, but twice in the last two playoffs for Atlanta.

The Falcons have to be kicking themselves after giving the last two champions their biggest scare in the playoffs. This team has been that close to greatness. Just about everything that could have gone wrong after 28-3 went wrong last year, but this time in Philadelphia it was more about a horrible red-zone sequence of plays called by Steve Sarkisian. While some will say Julio Jones dropped that fourth-and-2 pass, I think he would have struggled to get his feet down in bounds, and it was just a terrible play call anyway.

So now the Falcons return with basically the same offensive cast, swapping Taylor Gabriel for rookie Calvin Ridley. Sarkisian has a year under his belt, and remember, Kyle Shanahan wasn’t too good in his first year with Atlanta. The defense should probably be better than the statistics suggest given all the talent (Grady Jarrett, Vic Beasley, Deion Jones, Desmond Trufant, Keanu Neal). There’s enough young talent there to still get better, and we’re talking about a 15-10 loss last year, so the defense did a good enough job. You just have to finish the game, and the Falcons haven’t done that in the last two postseasons.

I’m going all in on Atlanta this year to finally get the job done in Dan Quinn’s fourth season. I am a believer in certain teams needing a few heartbreaks before getting over the hump. The 1996 Packers, 2006 Colts, 2012 Ravens and 2015 Broncos are all proof of that. With those last three teams, you can definitely say that wasn’t the “best” team those franchises fielded during their run, but it was the one that finished in the postseason.

With Atlanta, I see a similar story unfolding, because I have the Falcons starting strong, including wins in both Pennsylvania trips. Yes, I think Atlanta avenges the Philadelphia loss tonight with Nick Foles under center for the Eagles. Yes, I realize something could happen tonight that throws off my whole story here, but I’m fine with that. I also have the Falcons struggling late in the year, losing on the road in New Orleans, Green Bay and Carolina. Just enough doubt late in the season for the Falcons to fly under the radar into the postseason, where they have been successful lately, winning at least one game in each of the last three trips.

The added bonus of the Super Bowl being played in Atlanta this season could be just the edge this team needs to get over the hump. Imagine a true home-field advantage in the Super Bowl. We know the Vikings came up a game short of hosting last year’s big game, but I think Atlanta pulls it off this year.

2. New Orleans Saints (10-6)

As I showed in FOA 2018, last year was really a tale of three seasons in one for the Saints, who broke their 7-9 funk streak to get back to the playoffs.

There were the first two games where the defense looked as putrid as ever, albeit against elite competition (Vikings and Patriots). Then the team finally found a defense and running game for Drew Brees, led by dominant rookie performers in Marshon Lattimore and Alvin Kamara. The Saints won eight in a row and looked Super Bowl ready. But then the defense and running game fell closer to the middle of the pack, and the Saints were a mediocre 4-4 to finish the year, losing in the playoffs on a miracle touchdown by Stefon Diggs in Minnesota.

So I’m a little concerned that the Saints are closer to a mediocre team that is still led by its most consistent part (Brees), a part that turned 39 in January. Brees didn’t have to do as much heavy lifting last season, but he still completed 72 percent of his passes (NFL record again) and led the league in YPA. He was throwing the shortest passes in the league relative to the sticks, but the running game was so efficient and the receivers were so good after the catch that it worked out. Still, Brees fell out of the top 8 in converting third-down throws for the first time in New Orleans. Sometimes you still have to throw beyond the sticks and be aggressive, so we’ll see if the Saints continue to rely so much on the running backs in the passing game.

Mark Ingram will be suspended for four games, but I’m really excited to see what Alvin Kamara can do if they increase his workload. I’m skeptical that they will, but maybe he can handle a peak Jamaal Charles type of workload. He had such an efficient, versatile year as a runner, receiver, and returner. It’s hard to expect he’ll be as good this year, but the Saints should still be balanced on offense.

Defensively, I did not care for the trade of a first-round pick to get Marcus Davenport, who won’t be a Week 1 starter this year. I thought the Saints could have used some more immediate help or keep that pick to get better next year. The window is very small for Brees here.

In the end, it all comes down to finishing. The Saints couldn’t close out Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Minnesota late in the season. This team otherwise may have been in the Super Bowl instead of Philadelphia. It would be nice to see Brees get one more shot at a ring at 39, an age where Manning and Brady won their last rings.

3. Carolina Panthers (8-8)

In the Ron Rivera/Cam Newton era, the Panthers have had three winning seasons and four losing seasons. I think this is the first 8-8 season. Again, the division/conference are deep, and I just trust Matt Ryan and Drew Brees to be more consistent than Cam Newton.

Norv Turner is the new offensive coordinator, and I’m curious to see how he uses Christian McCaffrey and C.J. Anderson. Turner typically likes a workhorse back, but we’ll see if McCaffrey can sustain touches like that. McCaffrey had one game with 15 carries last season and generally wasn’t effective as a rusher. Would Turner ever think to use both together with McCaffrey playing in the slot?

This is probably the deepest Carolina has been at receiver in the Newton era with the additions of D.J. Moore, Torrey Smith, Jarius Wright, and the return of tight end Greg Olsen.

The front seven still looks solid and the secondary still looks shaky. Carolina played well against most offenses last year except for the Saints, the only team to gouge them for more than 30 points in a 3-game sweep. I actually have the Saints ending Carolina’s season again in Week 17. A win at home by New Orleans puts the Saints into the 6th seed, dropping Carolina to 8-8.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-13)

I may regret this one, but I had Tampa Bay at 10-6 last season and it was a really disappointing season. This year I found the Buccaneers the hardest team to find wins for in the NFC. The Jameis Winston suspension is a small part of that, because I think even with him starting 0-3 is a real possibility based on the schedule. It’s a really tough schedule when you play in a division where the other three teams made the playoffs last year and all have well-established quarterbacks. I covered this in FOA 2018 that it’s a disadvantage facing Winston that no other quarterback in the 32-team era has faced. Every other quarterback in his division has either won an MVP or Super Bowl MVP.

I don’t think center Ryan Jensen is the magical answer to making the OL better, and Ronald Jones had a very disappointing preseason. Now preseason doesn’t often mean much, but it would have at least been inspiring if he was productive in it. A lot of rookie backs usually do look good in August if they work out in the real games. So the running game may still be an issue. Defensively, I like what they did to revamp the line, but the secondary still leaves me unimpressed. In a division where everyone can throw (and a conference that’s deep at QB), that’s a big problem.

Maybe Winston returns with a new focus that brings out his very best and the team gets to 7-8 wins, but my gut says it’s a real down year that leads to Dirk Koetter getting fired. Possibly the first coach to be fired in 2018.

AFC WEST

1. Kansas City Chiefs (9-7)

I’m sticking with the Chiefs to win the division, because for all his shortcomings, Andy Reid is still the best coach in the AFC West. He knows how to get the most out of his quarterbacks, and Patrick Mahomes is such an exciting prospect to play in this system. I remember writing once that by going to Kansas City, he might actually have a defense unlike his days in college. Welp, the Chiefs have fallen off a good bit on defense, so it very well may look like Texas Tech all over again for Mahomes. That’s why I’m only going 9-7 in a tight division.

The good news is that this offense is stacked with athletes. Tyreek Hill might be the fastest wideout in the game, and that 60+ yard touchdown bomb the two connected on in the preseason could be a sign of things to come. Travis Kelce only looks up to Gronk in the TE rankings in this league. Kareem Hunt led the league in rushing as a rookie. Sammy Watkins should be a solid addition and another vertical threat. It’s just about the perfect setup for Mahomes, who may end up leading the league in ALEX, aDOT, and the lowest failed completion rate. He’s the complete opposite of Alex Smith when it comes to being aggressive.

Having said that, I will acknowledge that Mahomes may not be an upgrade to Smith in 2018. For one, Smith was at his best in 2017. He still wasn’t overly aggressive, but when he did throw deep, he was often on the money and delivered some big throws in big moments. So the success of the deep passing game may not actually improve this year (quantity will though). The other big thing is turnovers. Smith always kept his low, but with Mahomes, I get the feeling we’ll be routinely shaking our heads wondering why he threw that ball. He’ll offset it by making spectacular, highlight-worthy plays too, but I think the growing pains of being a first-year starter are going to lead to more turnovers than usual in a Reid offense, which could be a problem with a defense that’s not up to par.

But Mahomes is no longer a rookie, and we’ve seen first-year starters (non-rookies) light it up before. Daunte Culpepper in 2000 is a great example of that. I don’t see any reason why Mahomes couldn’t be a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback right away with the talent around him and the coaching advantage he has. The only quarterbacks I’m more excited to see this year are Watson and Garoppolo, but we just may be talking about the Chiefs as the most explosive offense out there.

Unfortunately a division win means another playoff game at cursed Arrowhead.

2. Los Angeles Chargers (9-7)

I have the Chargers barely in the playoffs, but I’m really skeptical of picking this team to do big things like get a bye or even win a playoff game. Philip Rivers has been consistently putting up big numbers for years, but his efficiency peaked in 2008-09 if we’re being honest. We also know the team can’t stay healthy as they already have the worst injury luck with Hunter Henry and Jason Verrett going down before Week 1. At least Antonio Gates re-signed with the team and they are used to playing without Verrett (deep at corner too). But it sure would have been nice to have those two guys ready this season.

The other issue I have is that the Chargers have folded against good competition for years. The Chargers are 3-20 in their last 23 games against teams that made the playoffs that year. That includes two wins over the 2016 Texans (Osweiler trash team) and 2017 Bills in the infamous Nathan Peterman start. About the only impressive win this team has in four years was the 33-30 comeback win in overtime in Atlanta in 2016. (In case you haven’t heard, the 2016 Falcons liked to blow big leads.) But that’s it. And when Rivers has played the Patriots in his career, well let’s just say Murphy’s Law unfolded almost every time. We saw that again last year when the Chargers self-destructed in a 21-13 loss. They somehow intercepted Blake Bortles twice after the two-minute warning (with the lead) and still lost in Jacksonville. Plus, when the Chargers had a chance to take control of the AFC West with a big road win in Kansas City last year, they folded in a 30-13 loss, their worst score of the season.

But I do really like the depth at wide receiver, new blood on the offensive line, and they have an elite duo of edge rushers in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. Casey Hayward can be a No. 1 corner. Caleb Sturgis hopefully won’t choke at kicker. A lot of the right ingredients are there, but it’s just a matter of whether or not you can trust this team.

3. Oakland Raiders (6-10)

In true 1998 fashion I wish this Oakland prediction was hosted on an Angelfire site, which might take a couple of minutes to load with your dial-up connection.

When Jon Gruden made his $100M return to NFL coaching after a decade, I thought the “I am trying to throw the game back to 1998” line would sustain jokes all season long. You know, Gruden was going to show the team this new comedy called There’s Something About Mary after practice. He’d have to get a new tablet each week after always digging into the screen with an actual pencil. He’ll try to use Oakland’s 2018 first-round pick on Charles Woodson, because it worked in 1998.

Lest we forget, Gruden was not an aggressive coach in his day. He also wasn’t very successful after his 2002 Super Bowl win with Tampa Bay, his first year there with a defense essentially crafted by Tony Dungy. Gruden went 0-2 in the playoffs the rest of the way.

I didn’t think this would be an epic blunder by the Raiders on the scale of bringing Art Shell back in 2006, but Gruden sure seems to be trying his hardest to make this an actual joke. It was cute when he wanted a fullback or blocking tight end to play smash-mouth football again. It raised eyebrows when he cut the team’s solid punter who danced too much. It started to get really troublesome when the Raiders were signing a stock of over-the-hill veterans (some with recent ACL/Achilles injuries), or damaged goods like Doug Martin. Gruden’s wandering eyes seemed to be scouting players from the Pro Bowl rosters back when his broadcasting career began.

But nothing compares to the batshit-craziness of not speaking to Khalil Mack, your best player, for months and eventually trading him because you didn’t think you could pay him. Oh, Gruden’s getting paid, and they already once made Derek Carr the highest-paid player in NFL history. But you really don’t have the money to pay an elite defender at age 27 that’s really the only great part of your defense? It’s madness to not get Mack signed to a second contract.

Granted, the Raiders have generally been poor on defense with Mack, but I don’t know how they ever expect to get better without him. Those draft picks, namely two first-rounders from Chicago, are unlikely to provide that type of value. The Raiders already cut 2017 second-round pick safety Obi Melifonwu. Hopefully we’ll see more from Gareon Conley this year, but it’s a pretty sad group the Raiders have on that side of the ball.

You probably know I don’t think Carr is anything special, though he might like a back-shoulder fade to Jordy Nelson this year. The Martavis Bryant trade was a total flop (third-round pick lost) after Bryant may face another drug-related suspension. No value there. The idea that Amari Cooper might soon command $18 million per year just about turned my stomach. Imagine paying an average of $43 million per year to Carr and Cooper, a duo that didn’t even connect for 700 yards last year at a time they should be hitting their prime together. Jermaine Kearse had a better year with Josh McCown throwing him the ball for the Jets last season.

I actually have the Raiders starting 0-6 going into the bye, which should be enough time for Gruden to reset his clock from 1998 to at least 2008. And I think the Raiders actually will pick up some big wins late in the season so that this doesn’t look like a total clusterf*ck.

This guy. Wild, man.

4. Denver Broncos (6-10)

I’ve only been off by a game on my Denver predictions in the two years since Peyton Manning retired. But Denver might be the hardest team in 2018 to predict, because what are we going to get from Case Keenum? He’s better than Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch at least. But he was one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL with the Rams in 2016, though some of that is on Jeff Fisher. He led the NFL in passing DVOA last year with Minnesota in a real Cinderella season and breakout Year 6 that just doesn’t happen. The guy threw for a million yards in college, so it’s good to see him having some success, but I can’t help but feel like 2017 will always be his peak. So much of the success was based on his play under pressure in the way that he avoided sacks to get rid of the ball to great receivers. That type of play usually doesn’t sustain itself well from year to year, and Keenum was putrid under pressure in 2016 for example.

In Denver, Keenum will have Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, which is solid, but not as good as Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. The hunt for a third wideout and a tight end has been on for years in Denver, but maybe Courtland Sutton and Jake Butt can help there. I liked the pick of running back Royce Freeman, though I still don’t think the offensive line is anything special in Denver.

The defense added Bradley Chubb, which should probably work out better as a pass-rushing mate for Von Miller than Shane Ray did. However, the secondary lost Aqib Talib, so the no-fly zone isn’t quite what it used to be. But this defense was not as bad as the scoring numbers suggest last season. The offense and special teams constantly put the defense in horrible field position. The Broncos were No. 2 in yards per drive allowed, but 14th in points allowed per drive because of the worst field position in the league. So if Keenum can protect the ball (not a given), then maybe he’ll be able to reap the benefits of a defense that should keep him in the game more often than not.

If you can promise me the Keenum of 2017 in 2018, then I’d say the Broncos are playoff worthy with Miller still leading a strong defense. However, I’m not optimistic about Keenum carrying over his play to Denver, and I’m not yet sold on Vance Joseph as a head coach. That’s why I think the Broncos still struggle and miss the playoffs for the third year in a row. Maybe Josh Rosen should have been the pick at No. 5. That’s one we’ll have to keep an eye on in the coming years. At least the team has moved on from the mistake that was Paxton Lynch.

NFC WEST

1. Los Angeles Rams (12-4)

Sean McVay was a very deserving winner of the Coach of the Year award. He turned around a struggling offense in historic fashion on the way to a 11-5 finish. While some teams like this have been one-year wonders in the past, I think the Rams have a great chance to be different after adding Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters, and Brandin Cooks. That’s pretty rare to be able to add four players of that caliber in the same offseason. You add that to MVP runner-up Todd Gurley and arguably the best defender in the game (Aaron Donald), and it’s a pretty stacked roster.

Of course, these off-season champions don’t often do too well when the real games start. Maybe Suh doesn’t gel as well with Donald as one would expect. Maybe the lack of an edge rusher (Robert Quinn left for Miami) makes the defense a little too reliant on interior pressure. Maybe the offensive line with three over 30 starters starts to show some decline. Almost certainly the big YAC plays from last year won’t be sustainable — certainly not a 50-plus yard touchdown on third-and-33. Todd Gurley averaged over 12 YAC/catch, a real outlier going back to 2006.

I still have questions about Jared Goff, who I thought had the most misleadingly great stat line of 2017. He certainly improved over a brutal rookie year and I at least have confidence in him to get this team back to the playoffs. But I’m not sold he’s an upper-tier QB just yet. They really helped him out last season with an offense that had the most YAC and throws to slot receivers. Cooper Kupp was a great rookie, and I think Sammy Watkins was underappreciated last year, but Cooks seems like a good replacement. I still don’t have a ton of faith in the tight ends, but perhaps Gerald Everett gets more work this season.

I think if your team is weak up front and not strong at wide receiver, then the Rams are designed to blow you out. Imagine a quarterback hurrying a pass to avoid Donald and Suh in his face, and he throws blindly outside the numbers to the waiting hands of Peters or Talib. This defense could easily lead the league in pick-sixes this year. So I think the Rams are going to roll some teams, but can they win the tough games on their schedule? We didn’t see much of that last year as they lost to the Eagles, Vikings, and then Falcons in the playoffs. If you finish off the Eagles in the game that Wentz was injured, then we could have been talking about the Rams as the No. 1 seed and best path to the Super Bowl.

So I’m definitely looking forward to how these new players fit in, but I wouldn’t write this off as a super team that’s going to roll everyone on the way to a Super Bowl. There are enough question marks and contenders left to keep this interesting.

2. San Francisco 49ers (9-7)

This is such an interesting one. Teams that finish strong haven’t been shown to often carry that over into the following season, because usually there are too many changing variables from one season to the next. But the 49ers went from losing every close game last season to inserting Jimmy Garoppolo and pulling out every close game behind strong quarterback play. I don’t think the TD:INT ratio is a good way to judge what Garoppolo did, because he was stellar on third downs, stellar under pressure (positive DVOA), and engineered scoring drives at a high rate with 8.8 YPA. Playing in the same offense with largely the same players around him, you saw the big difference he made over C.J. Beathard and Brian Hoyer. This is also building on a couple of starts in New England where Garoppolo again had great numbers in a small sample size. Now a full season of Garoppolo in Kyle Shanahan’s offense?  I really can’t wait to see it.

Overall I don’t really love the roster right now. I think there’s a lot of potential on defense, but few proven players, especially in that front seven where so many high draft picks have been invested. Richard Sherman should help out a secondary that still looks like a work in progress. The Jerick McKinnon ACL injury is a bad break, but Alfred Morris has been good everywhere he’s gone, and Shanahan’s system just works for backs time and time again.

I actually have the 49ers starting 2-4, because I think the schedule is tough early on the road. One thing you have to remember about the 5-0 finish last year is that they weren’t beating great teams. They snuck by the Bears, Texans, Titans, looked impressive against Jacksonville, and finished by beating up the Rams’ backups in a meaningless game for Los Angeles. It’s a bit different when teams come in knowing who your quarterback is and you’re on the road against Minnesota, Kansas City, Chargers, and Packers.

But I like Garoppolo and believe he can be the real deal. I just think they’ll need another year to get in the playoffs, so I have the 49ers as the No. 7 seed this season.

3. Seattle Seahawks (7-9)

I really want to believe that Russell Wilson is good enough to get this team to at least 8-8 on his own merit, but the departures have been too much to overlook. This is probably the weakest the defensive line has been after losing Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett. This is definitely the worst the secondary has been in years after Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor departed. Earl Thomas still might get traded. The Legion of Boom just fell off the Titantron. It’s also the weakest the tight ends have been in Wilson’s tenure after losing Jimmy Graham and Luke Willson. The offensive line, it is what it is by now and I think Wilson is used to dealing with that. The wide receiver depth may be the weakest it has been in Wilson’s time too. I love Doug Baldwin and think Tyler Lockett still has untapped potential, but they lost Paul Richardson (made some crazy catches in his time) and Brandon Marshall looks washed up.

Like I said in June…

Then there’s the Brian Schottenheimer angle at coordinator, and the talk about establishing the run and a first-round selection on a running back. This team hasn’t drafted well for years and it’s showing in a major way with the current state of the roster. Maybe Chris Carson is the right featured back, but that just makes the Rashaad Penny pick look that much sillier. Wilson had a nice year last season in carrying the team to 9-7, and the potential was there for more wins with better special teams play. However, Wilson also disappointed in some games with game-winning drive opportunities. He seemed to be pressing more than ever and that could get even worse this season as he tries to drag this team back to the playoffs.

I originally had Seattle at 8-8, then I saw how the team practically never scores (or wins) in Week 1 under Pete Carroll, and the Broncos are notorious for being dominant at home in September. So 7-9 it is, the first losing season under Wilson. If he proves me wrong, definitely throw his name back into the MVP race.

4. Arizona Cardinals (4-12)

I know, David Johnson is back after going down in Week 1 last season. The Cardinals should feel better than 4-12, but again, I had to find wins for other teams. Months ago, I felt like the Cardinals were the easiest pick in the league to regress from an 8-8 finish spawned by five game-winning drives led by three different quarterbacks. I always talked about Bruce Arians’ magic beans in close games, and I’m doubtful that Steve Wilks is going to replicate that kind of close-game success. I’m already leery after hearing Wilks described as an old-school “run the ball and stop the run” coach. I was wrong about Arians as a head coach in Arizona, but I just don’t have a good gut feeling on Wilks so far.

I liked the Josh Rosen draft pick, but understand why Sam Bradford is here to collect millions of more dollars until he inevitably gets hurt again. So maybe we’ll see Rosen anyway, and hopefully it’s a certainty we do late in the year if the Cardinals are out of the playoff picture. I like Johnson in the backfield, but I don’t think the receiving corps is very good outside of Larry Fitzgerald. The defense lost another key player in Tyrann Mathieu. Bradford’s not terrible anymore, but unless Johnson is transcendent, Robert Nkemdiche breaks out, and Christian Kirk has a monster rookie year, I just don’t see a ton to be excited about in Arizona right now.

They have to let Wilks, a one-year coordinator, get his feet wet and get the roster better for Rosen to compete in 2019. The NFC is too deep right now to realistically expect much this season.

PLAYOFFS

AFC

  1. Pittsburgh (12-4)
  2. New England (12-4)
  3. Jacksonville (10-6)
  4. Kansas City (9-7)
  5. Los Angeles (9-7)
  6. Houston (9-7)

I have Pittsburgh edging out New England for home-field advantage based on a Week 15 H2H win. The Chiefs get the division over the Chargers thanks largely to a Week 15 home win in their rematch, setting up a Round 3 in the playoffs. Yes, Arrowhead gets to work its curse again, but the Chargers bring their own voodoo to that one. I also have a Round 3 between the Texans and Jaguars, which actually gets set up by Jags laying down (No. 3 seed locked up) in Week 17 to the Texans, who edge out Baltimore (9-7) for the final spot. If we give the Jags and Chiefs those wins, then it’s some recent AFC playoff rematches (KC-PIT, JAX-NE), which very well may set up another NE-PIT AFC Championship Game, but back at Heinz Field this time. I know, it’s insanity to think this team is going to beat the Pats in Week 15 and a month later too, but you just get tired of picking the same thing. Besides, the Patriots have been swept before by the 2005 Broncos, 2006 Colts, 2011 Giants, 2012 Ravens, and 2015 Broncos. It can happen.

NFC

  1. Minnesota (12-4)
  2. Atlanta (12-4)
  3. Los Angeles (12-4)
  4. Philadelphia (11-5)
  5. Green Bay (12-4)
  6. New Orleans (10-6)

I was killing myself with the tie-breakers with four teams at 12-4. I think I got it right though. The Vikings get the division over Green Bay based on a better division record, which makes Green Bay the No. 5 seed. The Rams fall to the third seed based on the worst conference record out of them, Vikings, and Falcons. Finally, the Vikings get the top seed over Atlanta based on a better record in common games (4-1 vs. 3-2). I think Aaron Rodgers pulls off a mini upset in Philadelphia to knock out the champs, setting up shades of the 2010 run that started in Philly. But the Vikings take two out of three meetings against the Packers, and the Falcons knock out the Rams for the second year in a row. This sets up a rematch from 20 years ago when the Falcons stunned Minnesota in the NFC Championship Game after Gary Anderson missed a field goal that would have sealed the deal. Because it’s Minnesota, something crazy happens again, and Matt Bryant kicks the Falcons back into the Super Bowl.

SUPER BOWL LIII

Atlanta 28, Pittsburgh 24

Make that a home Super Bowl for the Falcons since the game is in Atlanta this year. The Falcons jump out to another big lead, but this time they hold on. Bell fumbles in the fourth quarter a la Rashard Mendenhall in XLV, and Julio Jones wins Super Bowl MVP because god forbid Matt Ryan ever gets that type of recognition. At least a ring should lock up his HOF spot after 11 seasons.

TL;DR version: it’s finally Atlanta’s year.

NFL Week 3 Predictions: I’m Empty, Please Fill Me

Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern.

The beauty of Week 3 in the NFL is trying to figure out which of the last two weeks was more telling for each team. This may be a fool’s errand in the grand scheme of things, but it’s what we do when we have nothing else to go on.

Still, the week got off to a surprisingly good start with the Rams-49ers putting on a show on Thursday night. We really could use a great Sunday of football after a slow Weeks 1-2 and after another difficult week in “the real world.” I doubt anything this weekend can match last season’s Week 10 timely greatness after the election, because that slate had awesome matchups in Seahawks-Patriots and Cowboys-Steelers.

But I have a few thoughts to share on several Week 3 games. A main theme this week is the idea of certain teams and players being in a desperate mode to avoid an 0-3 start. A guy like Brian Hoyer had to know he needed to play better to keep his job. He did even if the 49ers still lost. I think Mike Glennon is in a very similar situation in Chicago to hold off Mitch Trubisky, and while Eli Manning is in no real danger to lose his job in New York, the Giants need to start scoring some points again after this 0-2 start. The same thing can be said about Andy Dalton in Cincinnati. So this stuff is weighing into my predictions this week.

Bengals at Packers

I like for a huge game from A.J. Green, especially with Tyler Eifert out, but how do you go against Green Bay at home after a bad loss? Look for Aaron Rodgers to be much sharper as he usually is at Lambeau. He’s never beaten the Bengals (0-2), but those were Mike Zimmer-coordinated defenses. The Bengals just seem like a broken, lost team at this point. I think firing the OC will give some boost, but a lot of that can also be explained this week by playing a GB defense instead of the Ravens or Texans.

Browns at Colts

Weird to see Cleveland favored on the road, but without Andrew Luck, the Colts really are the most irrelevant team in the NFL right now. It’s like the season hasn’t even started for them yet. However, do I really trust the Browns to win here? If not for botching a 3rd-and-20 last week, I think the Colts would have beaten Arizona. Jacoby Brissett is an upgrade over Scott Tolzien, though the offense is still obviously a problem. I just think at home, the defense can get some hurries, sacks, and takeaways from DeShone Kizer, and the run defense hasn’t been that bad so far. So I’m going to stick with the Colts in this one, as I said they’d start 1-3 with a win over Cleveland if Luck was out the whole time.

Steelers at Bears

Is this not the perfect trap game for the Steelers on the road? Remember, they’re not good in these games away from the state of Ohio. Everyone expects them to win easily, but the Bears gave Atlanta all it could handle in Week 1. Mike Glennon beat the Steelers in one of their home letdown games in 2014 with Tampa Bay. He should have more success through the air against this defense than the Bears will have on the ground. Question is will the defense show up? I don’t think the Steelers have blocked well at all for Le’Veon Bell this year, and he hasn’t been a factor in the passing game. Blame that on skipping the offseason I guess. I also don’t think Ben Roethlisberger has been sharp despite a lot of advanced metrics suggesting things are just fine. He missed a lot of throws against the Vikings and only had success with Brown and the Outlaw in Week 1. This would be a good game to get Martavis Bryant going at a high level again, but either way, the Bears don’t have the defense to match up here so Pittsburgh should win.

But we’ve seen this movie play out before, especially with a big Baltimore game looming.

Giants at Eagles

I’d like to pick the Giants to get a win, but I just think the Eagles are playing better right now, and the defense should have its way with New York’s line. The Giants struggle as it is in Philly, but this is a bad time for this matchup. I think the defense has been fine for New York, so if Eli can get anything going, they have a decent shot here. But if you can’t score 20+ anymore, then you’re not beating the Eagles (or just about anyone).

Falcons at Lions

This could easily be the game of the week, a shootout expected for sure. I’d say Atlanta’s pass protection has been spotty at times again like last year, so Matt Ryan has to watch those drive-killing sacks. Detroit’s defense has been pretty solid, but I’m just not sure Carson Palmer and Eli Manning still have “it” this year at an advanced age. Ryan is in his prime and still on that MVP roll from last year. The defense also looks better for Atlanta, but Detroit’s small ball and tendency to throw to the RBs can definitely lead to points on this defense. Like I said, shootout expected and definitely a game that should come down to the final drive with two of the most prolific QBs at leading game-winning drives. I’m still picking the road team, because I trust Atlanta more than I do Detroit. This team has been pretty hot for a good stretch now with that one massive screw-up known as the 2nd half of Super Bowl LI. But I like the way they’ve started this year in response to that.

Broncos at Bills

Could have been an interesting first road test for Vance Joseph, but I don’t like the fact that Cordy Glenn is out at LT for Buffalo. This needs to be a game where LeSean McCoy dominates, because the Bills aren’t going to have any success with Tyrod Taylor scrambling and trying to throw into this secondary with his limited receiving corps. With Glenn out, I don’t see Buffalo winning up front too much, and they already give up a lot of pressure as it is. Marcell Dareus is also out, and lest we forget, Buffalo was a team pegged to be pretty awful coming into this season after getting rid of so many young contributors. Did you see Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins go over 100 yards each on Thursday for the Rams? The Bills could use some playmakers right now.

Buccaneers at Vikings

I wouldn’t count out Case Keenun making the game at least competitive at home. He did that a lot for the 2013 Texans, but just lost every close game imaginable that year. Vikings are talented, but QB injuries really suck. Tampa Bay was really good last week. Good opportunity for a 2-0 start with a win over another team expected to be in the playoff hunt.

Seahawks at Titans

At least it’s not a 10:00 A.M. start time for the Seahawks. This is the kind of game the Seahawks tend to lose: cross-country, aggressive defense that can get after Wilson, and a team that can run the ball offensively and has a quarterback with escapability too. However, are we sure this is the kind of game the Titans win? They don’t have much of a recent track record, and already flopped at home against Oakland in Week 1. I like this matchup since it’s two preseason contenders (division winners at least) and one is going to start 1-2. I’m still leaning towards Seattle, because I can’t believe that offense won’t be better than how it’s started, and I still like the defense very much.

Raiders at Redskins

In Week 1, Kirk Cousins tied for the team lead with 30 rushing yards. In Week 2, the Redskins had 3 backs go for over 60 rushing yards, a rare feat indeed. Cousins played much more of a dink-and-dunk game manager role in that one, though we are starting to see that the Rams just may not be that good defensively this season. But what kind of offense is Washington right now? Terrelle Pryor hasn’t quite acclimated himself well to the offense yet, Jordan Reed is eternally hurt, and Jamison Crowder has been less productive than RB Chris Thompson. Under Sean McVay as offensive coordinator, Jay Gruden’s offense was pretty consistent the last couple of years, but I see a unit that is struggling to find an identity after losing McVay and the top two wideouts. I’m just not sure what to expect from Washington in any given week, while I think Oakland brings a talented offense with a favorable matchup on any play since Josh Norman can only cover one of Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper at a time. These are unusual teams to see on SNF, but hey, we need some new blood in this league. I don’t think the Raiders are anywhere near being locks on the road to beat an average team, but it’s a decent test for them and not a bad way to end the day.

2017 Week 3 Predictions

I finally got a TNF right by going with the Rams, who almost blew it of course.

Winners in bold.

  • Ravens vs. Jaguars
  • Saints at Panthers
  • Browns at Colts
  • Falcons at Lions
  • Texans at Patriots
  • Broncos at Bills
  • Steelers at Bears
  • Buccaneers at Vikings
  • Dolphins at Jets
  • Giants at Eagles
  • Seahawks at Titans
  • Chiefs at Chargers
  • Bengals at Packers
  • Raiders at Redskins
  • Cowboys at Cardinals

That’s a hell of a lot of road teams to pick, but I guess we’ll just have to tune in to see how it goes.

  • Week 1: 8-7
  • Week 2: 11-5
  • Season: 19-12

2017 NFL Predictions

In last year’s NFL predictions, Optimistic Scott made his debut, offering a beacon of hope for a few teams.

The 2016 season then crushed him after another historic offense collapsed on the game’s biggest stage, allowing New England to do what it does better than anyone in history: take advantage of another team’s stupidity. Thanks to that ridiculous Super Bowl LI finish, the 2017 season is basically being billed as New England vs. the NFL. To the despair of football fans across the world (minus one region), we’ve waited seven months just to begin a five-month journey of the Patriots dominating the NFL with no hope of a worthy contender in sight.

Eat Arby’s.

Eventually, a new power will rise, but is anyone really counting on a team like Tampa Bay or Tennessee to establish that level of play this year? That would be ending a near-decade drought of playoff appearances. Both teams went 9-7 last year, and I have them improving and finishing with the same record this year, though you’ll have to scroll to the bottom to see which one makes the playoffs.

This is the longest the NFL has ever gone without a repeat champion, with the Patriots being the last to do so in 2003-04. It is hard to recall another season where one team was seemingly so far ahead of the field going into Week 1 like New England is this year. What has beaten this team in the past? There sure wasn’t any help from the AFC East, which looks to be in extra embarrassing mode this season with the Bills and Jets tanking. Archie Manning’s Sperm has been the best defense against the New England dynasty, producing five playoff wins, but we know Peyton Manning is history. Eli’s Giants theoretically have a 6.25 percent chance of getting back to the Super Bowl, and their realistic odds probably aren’t that much higher, especially compared to Atlanta, Dallas, Green Bay, and Seattle.

The Ravens and Jets were once able to vanquish the Patriots (at home even) in the playoffs with Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez, but those were strong defenses. The best defense in the AFC is likely still in Denver, but it’s the same story as last year with that team: no QB, likely to lose by a 16-3 score to the Patriots, and unlikely to return to the playoffs. Flacco’s not even good enough anymore to reliably get Baltimore into the playoffs, and the Ravens are 0-3 against the Patriots since 2013 anyway. Pittsburgh and Oakland don’t have the defense to slow down New England, and the coaching disadvantage is huge there. That leaves one team (Kansas City), and we’ll get a great view tonight of how that matchup looks this season. The season goes quickly, but it is still a long way between now and January. A lot can happen.

A Kansas City upset in the season’s first game would totally change the outlook of this season, one that has many predicting the Patriots to go 19-0. If you don’t believe one game can do that, well just look at Super Bowl LI, or “28-3” as it will be forever known. Had Atlanta done just one more thing right — and trust me, we can pick from a long list of things that went wrong after 28-3 — we’d be singing a different tune right now.

If every other personnel decision, roster move and injury this offseason was exactly the same following an Atlanta Super Bowl win, would the Patriots still get undefeated predictions and be such an overwhelming favorite? I highly doubt it, but what really would be different going into 2017? After all, they’d still have a loaded roster, a head coaching advantage over every opponent, and a schedule that we have projected at FO to be the easiest this season. Sure, the Kansas City game may have been played on Sunday afternoon instead of Thursday night (champions’ spotlight), but the schedule is still very much the same.

Yet that comeback, or epic collapse by Atlanta, does shape the perception going into this season that the Patriots are unbeatable. It’s up to the rest of the NFL to prove that wrong. I always start with the AFC East, so the Patriots are the first team up in my predictions, so let’s continue with why 19-0 is unlikely to happen, but another Lombardi just may be inevitable.

AFC EAST

1. New England Patriots (14-2)

A decade after the 2007 Patriots flirted with perfection, here we are again. In case you forgot, the Patriots ended 2016 on a 10-game winning streak including the playoffs. So any prediction of 16-0 or 19-0 this year means you would be predicting the Patriots to have a 26 to 29-game winning streak. The NFL’s all-time longest winning streak is 21 games by the 2003-04 Patriots (salutations to Olindo Mare, the Colts’ goal-line offense, Drew Bennett, John Kasay, and Mike Vanderjagt for keeping that one alive so long).

Unless Bill Belichick or Tom Brady wants to leave no doubt that they are Faust, I cannot imagine one team being so lucky for 29 games. A loss is bound to happen somewhere, and the front seven certainly doesn’t look like a unit that should be going undefeated. Perhaps this is the year the losses of Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins and Rob Ninkovich catch up to Belichick. Remember, the Patriots had some defensive struggles in 2009-2011 after losing a ton of defensive veterans from the beginning of the dynasty. Maybe David Harris (ex-Jets) looks too old and slow at linebacker, and cornerback Stephon Gilmore (ex-Bills) is not the free-agent signing the Patriots were hoping for. I’m not saying we’ll see 2005 or 2011-caliber defense from the Patriots this year, but it’s unlikely to allow the fewest points in the league like last year.

Of course, this offense has the potential to be the most potent since that 2007 season. Or is it had the potential? The loss of Julian Edelman (ACL) in the preseason is very notable, and also a reminder that it doesn’t take much for a player to get hurt and change your season’s outlook. Does Edelman represent a drop in wins? Unlikely, especially not when the team has so much skill player depth and a very similar player in Danny Amendola.

However, I can see the Edelman injury costing this team at the end of the year, whether it’s that first regular-season loss or a season-ending playoff loss. There is no denying that Brady and Edelman have a special connection, as that slot receiver role that the Pats have defined in the modern game is crucial to this offense’s ability to move the chains and keep drives alive. Edelman had 159 targets last season. He had at least 73 receiving yards in each of the final 11 games last season. Part of that was the injury to Rob Gronkowski — oh yeah, arguably the best TE in NFL history is back now — but it’s also the style of this offense. Brady feasts on those short routes to Edelman, who is a tough sucker with the ball in his hands, always fighting forward for extra yards. The Patriots put an incredible amount of volume and responsibility on their slot receiver. Wes Welker was extremely durable in this role for 2007-2012. Edelman has not been as durable, and now he’s gone for the year. Amendola has often been injured in his career, and I seriously doubt he could handle 100-plus targets in this offense without getting hurt. He’s also just not as good as Edelman.

But beyond Gronkowski returning, what else is different? The Patriots traded for Brandin Cooks, a young, top deep threat with Drew Brees in New Orleans. They also might throw a few deep balls to Phillip Dorsett after picking up the first-round pick in a trade from the Colts. Chris Hogan has been turned into a vertical receiver in New England, and he should see a lot more usage after his huge postseason. Do people realize that Hogan had 332 receiving yards in the postseason alone? That’s the 14th-most in a postseason in NFL history (note: Edelman’s 342 yards last year ranks 10th). Oh, they also picked up Dwayne Allen for some Gronk insurance (always have to buy some Gronk insurance), and they have about a million receiving backs, including James White, who could have been Super Bowl MVP.

This sounds like an offense that will be going down the field more often, but is that really a smart move with a 40-year-old QB who is not at his most comfortable in a vertical offense? We’ll get to the age thing in a second, but just consider how this might hurt the Patriots against a quality opponent.

We saw some of this in the Houston AFC divisional game where Brady threw a lot of deep balls to deal with pressure, but the offense was having a difficult time that night. Brady threw two interceptions after throwing two all regular season. So what if some of those drives that get kept alive with a short throw and YAC to Edelman are replaced with a deep pass that sails out of bounds to Hogan or Cooks? If Brady is holding the ball longer to make these deep throws, then that could open him up to more pressure and sacks. Let’s face it: the offensive line is not that strong either. When Brady was pressured last year, he was off target on more than 45 percent of his passes, the worst rate in the NFL. This is a consistent trend in his career too, which is why getting pressure on him is more important than it is for other top quarterbacks.

Let this drop in efficiency from a more vertical strategy happen on two or three drives that otherwise get extended with a safer throw to Edelman, and that could be the difference in winning a close playoff game and losing a close playoff game. God knows the Patriots know better than anyone about being involved in close playoff games. The margins are often tiny with this team. So a 40-year-old QB missing his security blanket, not playing to his strengths (perhaps in very cold January weather) may end up hurting the Patriots in the end.

We’re entering rarely charted territory with a 40-year-old quarterback. Brett Favre was great at 40 for the Vikings in 2009, but terrible at 41 in 2010. Warren Moon still had a productive 1997 season for the Seahawks at 41. The only other quarterback to start 10-plus games in his 40s was Vinny Testaverde (2004 Cowboys). That’s it. Favre (2009) was the only time a quarterback started all 16 games in his 40s.

Father Time is undefeated, and he likes to swoop in quickly rather than let you die a slow death. Even Peyton Manning had a dominant 2014 start before things fell off late in the year. The torn quad was just the beginning of the end. Would even Belichick have the guts to bench a struggling Brady for Jimmy Garoppolo? I’m not so sure. Even with Garoppolo, this team should still easily win the AFC East and contend for a bye anyway. But if they stick with a struggling Brady and the defense isn’t top notch, then I can see some losses.

Since 2001, the Patriots are 13-0 in the playoffs against new opponents and 12-9 in rematches from that regular season. You basically have to play this team at least once to correct your mistakes for the big rematch. Fortunately, we will see the Patriots play the AFC’s three heavy hitters in the regular season (Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Oakland). They’ll also play the NFC South, which boasts the last two Super Bowl teams (2016 Falcons and 2015 Panthers). Otherwise, the schedule isn’t too bad, and outside of those games, only a virtuoso performance by Drew Brees (Week 2) or a demolition of Brady by Von Miller and company in Denver (Week 10) should bother the Patriots in their pursuit of perfection.

Kansas City has the first shot at making 19-0 a moot point, but we’ll see if the Chiefs also have the best shot in January of ending New England’s repeat attempt for good. Barring catastrophic injury, this team is absolutely a lock for a home playoff game, and probably a bye. There is just no way of getting to the Super Bowl in the AFC without handling New England at some point.

2. Miami Dolphins (7-9)

Like I wrote in Football Outsiders Almanac 2017, the only thing Miami is great at is being mediocre. There’s not a strong unit on this offense or defense, and the special teams weren’t that special last year. The Dolphins pulled off a few crazy comebacks, had multiple non-offensive game-winning scores, and escaped two game-winning field goals in overtime wins (Cleveland and Buffalo) to get to 10-6 last year. That’s not a sustainable formula going forward. Miami’s only quality win last year was the game against Pittsburgh when Ben Roethlisberger tore his meniscus and Jay Ajayi broke out. We saw what happened when the QB1 injuries were reversed in the playoffs.

Now with Ryan Tannehill out, which is so very unfortunate, Miami has the perfect signal caller to head this parade back to mediocrity: Jay Cutler. He cared just enough to get out of his FOX gig to make $10 million this year. He’ll make some dazzling throws. He may even help DeVante Parker break out in his third year, which I think is far more crucial to this offense than feeding Jarvis Landry, which has had a negative impact on this offense’s production in the past. Cutler can even pull off some impressive game-winning drives of his own. But that “wow arm talent!” will also single-handedly cost your team a few games a year with mind-numbing decisions and game-changing turnovers.

Maybe Ajayi is a stud with Laremy Tunsil in his proper position at left tackle, but keep in mind that feat of three 200-yard rushing games means that nearly half of his rushing production came in three games. This was not a consistent rushing offense last year.

The defense is heavily reliant on Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake generating pressure. The rest of the defense lacks a great player, and with the linebackers, you just hope that Kiko Alonso and Lawrence Timmons stay healthy at this point. Byron Maxwell wasn’t terrible last year like he was in 2015, but cornerback performance can shift in a hurry. The Dolphins still can’t be trusted in the secondary to do anything great against top passing offenses.

I also don’t think it helps that the Dolphins may have to play just six true home games due to the Hurricane in Week 1 and the London game with the Saints. (Update: game has been moved to Week 11, so they’ll play 16 straight.) When you look at the schedule, most of the teams Miami faces are just flat out better. I would be shocked if this isn’t a typical 7-9/8-8 Miami season. The saving grace was going to be Tannehill improving in Year 2 with Gase, but we get an unexpected Year 2 of Cutler and Gase. The problem is every Cutler year looks a bit too familiar, and as the last decade has shown, that’s usually not good enough for the playoffs.

3. Buffalo Bills (2-14)

Buffalo’s offseason has been so ass-backwards, I expect the team’s next announcement to be a new statue in honor of O.J. Simpson.

I wasn’t always this down on Buffalo this offseason. In fact, I expected the typical 7- 8 wins and no playoff appearance for the team in 2017, but recent moves have been stunning. It started when they fired the GM (Doug Whaley) after the draft, which was a bit of odd timing. Then the strange moves started with the team trading away Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby. Those are young players who are supposed to be WR1 and CB1. Not to mention the Bills already lost Robert Woods (WR2) and Stephon Gilmore (old CB1) this offseason. Yeah, I’ve been at odds with the Watkins trade since the beginning, but his vertical style fits Tyrod Taylor’s strength well, and certainly much better than slot receiver Jordan Matthews and rookie possession receiver Zay Jones. Anquan Boldin joined this circus and after one lousy preseason game, basically said “Peace, Buffalo.  Call me if you need me, Pats.”

It really seems like Buffalo is trying to sabotage Taylor’s third season as a starter to have the excuse to move on from him in 2018. This is the problem you can face with a rookie head coach with no track record (Sean McDermott) and a new GM (Brandon Beane) who doesn’t have any heartstrings tied to the current roster. These are Carolina guys setting up shop in Buffalo, and they’re basically throwing in the towel on this season. Trading away Reggie Ragland, the 41st pick in the 2016 draft, was just par for the course in this housecleaning.

I certainly wouldn’t put any money on the Bills winning two games, but aside from sweeping the Jets and perhaps rushing all over New Orleans outdoors in cold weather, where are the wins coming from on this schedule? Hell, a win over the Jets in Week 1 isn’t even a guarantee like it almost would have been had this team still had its core of young talent.

The Bills have really outdone themselves in making their product even more unwatchable this season. Apparently they expect us to start paying attention again in 2018.

Rant Time: Before I somehow get into a worse team in the Jets, let’s merge together these topics of the AFC East’s inferiority and New England’s “brilliance thru other’s stupidity.” Let’s think about Chris Hogan. Like I said before, a prolific postseason and expected to do bigger things in 2017. This was a guy who had the nickname “7-11” because he was always open. Yet the 2012 Dolphins, a team in desperate need of wideouts, couldn’t even bother to keep Hogan on the practice squad for more than a couple of days before releasing him for good. He ends up in Buffalo and has some decent production for a team that has struggled to throw the ball since the 21st century started. Did Buffalo keep him? No, he signed an offer sheet with the Patriots, because Belichick knew there was talent there. The Bills didn’t match, and now we’re seeing a Bills team that has almost nothing at the wide receiver position, and will likely get burned at least once by Hogan this season. I’m not 100% sure if his whiteness plays a role in not getting enough respect from front offices (or opposing defenses). I mean, watch the coaches on Hard Knocks this year with Tampa Bay and notice how black linebacker Cameron Lynch was always said to “move better” than white linebacker Riley Bullough (Joe Dirt). Every time they were compared, that was the go-to line. There may very well be statistical support of that from GPS tracking data, but it screams code for “black guy is more athletic than slow white guy.” And maybe that’s fine in this situation pending that it’s true, but this is dicey when you start calling a white quarterback “smart” in a way you wouldn’t say that for a similar black quarterback, or that a white running back has to be “gritty” just to make a 53-man roster. I’m getting off track now, but that’s why I called this Rant Time. The point is the Patriots won’t care about things like skin color and draft status when evaluating a player. If they can find a quick, shifty player who can catch the ball and make things happen, they’ll kill you with him, even if he’s undrafted and white. Other teams are busy trying to find players who look the part rather than those capable to play the part.

4. New York Jets (2-14)

Seriously, is this not the lamest division race in the post-merger era? If you thought the Bills have given up, the Jets tossed the towel months ago. No, you won’t be watching Ryan Fitzpatrick throw interceptions instead of completions to Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker this year. You won’t even see Quincy Enunwa make some impressive plays, but at least that one is due to an unfortunate injury. No, with this offense, we might as well be watching Josh McCown (or Christian Hackenberg) take the field with the cast from Little Giants, all grown up. There is nothing to get excited about on this offense anymore.

Of course, if tanking is your plan, then McCown is your man.

So maybe getting the No. 1 pick (over Buffalo’s dead body) and getting a quarterback like Sam Darnold is the plan all along for the Jets. But even the defense is likely to struggle with Morris Claiborne and Buster Skrine taking over as the starting corners. That is a far cry from the days of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. At least the defensive line is still stout, but the Jets made sure to trade away malcontent Sheldon Richardson to Seattle, where he will likely shine now that he plays for a team he can actually give a damn for.

0-16 predictions are understandable, but if you are curious, I have the Jets winning at home against the Jaguars and Bills this year. I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but I know it will take a lot of help from Blake Bortles and another team that isn’t interested in even competing this season.

NFC EAST

1. Dallas Cowboys (12-4)

Right after Super Bowl LI ended, Dallas was my Super Bowl LII pick for the NFC. As the months went on and the suspensions piled up, I cooled off a bit on that prediction. Now with the uncertainty surrounding the Ezekiel Elliott situation, I’m really not sure what to make of Dallas. Surprisingly, I still found 12 wins for them, including a huge head-to-head tie-breaker over Seattle in Week 16.

However, I think the Cowboys have some of their toughest tests early in the season. I think they’ll get over the Giants hump on Sunday with Elliott somehow allowed to play, but going to Denver and Arizona, those are games that could easily both be losses against talented defenses on the road. Green Bay may also be a close loss again in Week 5 if Elliott isn’t there. So it’s tough to really project Dallas with so many key players out for portions of the season, but I do believe Dak Prescott is for real. That wasn’t some RGIII misleading season. He had a season that was as efficient as some of the best from that group of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. He just didn’t have the volume of them, but that’s to be expected for a rookie.

Sophomore slump, you say? Maybe, but it’s hard to improve on what could be arguably the best rookie quarterback season in NFL history. A few of the past candidates for that, including Dan Marino (1983), Ben Roethlisberger (2004) and Russell Wilson (2012) all have something in common too: they reached the Super Bowl in their second season, with the last two winning a ring that early. Prescott has a chance to do that too.

I’m sure the interceptions will go up, but Prescott seems to have the proper skillset to be a low-INT guy on an annual basis. The last decade of QB play was dominated by the Manning/Brady/Brees pocket passer. I think the game is shifting towards the more athletic quarterback who can throw from the pocket, but also escape and make things happen on the run. Aaron Rodgers and Wilson have been doing this, and I think Prescott and Marcus Mariota can also be that type of quarterback.

The Elliott suspension could also be a great test for Prescott to show that he is the main reason Dallas improved to the No. 1 seed last year with one of the best offenses in the league. Remember, Dallas rested starters in Week 17, so could have been 14-2 as well, especially if Mark Sanchez didn’t play as much as he did that day.

The defense hasn’t been terrible despite the flaws, but it’s definitely not a unit that looks championship caliber. Maybe Jaylon Smith can contribute this year, and perhaps Orlando Scandrick plays better another year removed from a torn ACL.

If Dallas faltered to 8-8/9-7, I wouldn’t be shocked, but I just believe in Prescott, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Cole Beasley, this offensive line, and kicker Dan Bailey to get the job done.

2. New York Giants (10-6)

The Giants were the lowest variance team in DVOA history last season. Every week it seemed like the defense was holding onto a one-score lead to wrap up another win. The defense let down in Green Bay in the playoffs, but I still really like the defensive line and secondary. Janoris Jenkins changed my opinion of him from his play with the Rams. He was very good last year, and safety Landon Collins is quickly approaching great status. The linebackers seem JAG level to me, but overall, it’s one of the best defenses in the NFC and I think that will continue in 2017.

This team goes the distance if Eli Manning can find that 2011 touch again. He was not consistent enough last season, and I’m not sure how much an older Brandon Marshall and a rookie tight end (Evan Engram) help this year. But there is talent around him, including Paul Perkins, who I expect to be solid at running back. The offensive line is still a question mark, but Eli has always been pretty good at mitigating sacks and great at staying healthy every week.

If he just plays up to his abilities at the right moments again, then this team can be Super, but I just don’t see them sweeping Dallas again like last year.

3. Philadelphia Eagles (8-8)

The Eagles seem like a good candidate for improvement after losing six close games last season. They already have a strong defense and special teams, and added offensive talent in Alshon Jefferey, Torrey Smith and LeGarrette Blount. What ultimately kept the Eagles out of the playoffs was their passing game, led by rookie Carson Wentz. As you probably know, I think he was a bottom-10 QB last season by just about any metric, and anyone who sees otherwise likely stopped paying attention after September ended. I didn’t think his three-game start was the stuff of legends either, and that’s where the controversy started when I pointed out his very low ranking in air yards. By season’s end, Wentz threw the fifth-shortest passes in the league, but it’s always going to be difficult to sink to the bottom when Alex Smith and Sam Bradford are still QB1s.

When Wentz had his big day against Pittsburgh in Week 3, I pointed out that Darren Sproles made two great plays after the catch, gaining YAC of 46 and 50 yards. That’s not a repeatable strategy. In the season’s other 15 games, the Eagles never had a play with more than 30 YAC, and this was an offense that threw more than 600 passes.

By adding Jeffery and Smith, that tells me the Eagles will go downfield more this year, but is that really Wentz’s strength? That remains to be seen, as this is an Andy Reid/Doug Pederson style of WCO, and the Chiefs still neutered Jeremy Maclin a bit when he joined Alex Smith in Kansas City. Jeffery and Smith are low catch% receivers who can make big plays, but you have to be willing to give them shots. Jeffery in particular can win 50/50 balls. I don’t have a ton of confidence left in Smith after a putrid showing on the 49ers last year, but yes, he is better than some of the wideouts the Eagles had a year ago. Still, I didn’t think Jordan Matthews (traded to Buffalo), tight end Zach Ertz and Sproles were bad weapons for a quarterback to have. The Eagles certainly didn’t have the worst supporting cast in the league last year.

I’ve never made any kind of career proclamation about what Wentz will be. I just called his rookie year like I saw it: bad. Can he get better? Of course, but I’d be alarmed that he didn’t improve as last year went on. When people ignore the huge difference in stats of this era to the past, they do silly things like compare his rookie season to Peyton Manning’s in 1998. Okay, but can you not see that Manning shook off a terrible six-game start and was trending upwards the final 10 games that year? Wentz peaked so early last year. Maybe that’s irrelevant going forward, but I just think the expectations that low catch% wideouts and Lane Johnson are going to make this huge difference for him is a bit absurd. Seriously, Johnson has to be the 2nd most overrated Eagle at this point if you think he has that big of an impact on this team. No legit quarterback’s success is tied to his right tackle. You can make that argument for a play or a drive, but not for a full game or season. That’s just not how the NFL works.

Fact is the 2016 Eagles were 0-9 when opponents scored more than 20 points, 7-0 when they were held under 20. The offense needs to step up, and it’s not as simple as adding a few new players. Wentz himself just has to get a lot better in his second season, and while I think he’ll be better, I don’t think he’ll be great enough to carry this team to the top of the division.

4. Washington Redskins (8-8)

It seems like the only real offseason story about Washington has been Kirk Cousins’ contract, and the fact that he may bolt for a team like the 49ers in 2018 to the tune of $30 million per season. If we’re being honest, he’s one more good year away from doing as much, if not more than Derek Carr and Matthew Stafford have in their careers, so why not have someone pay him handsomely too? I just don’t get why it hasn’t been Washington yet.

Last year, if the defense could defend a 75-yard field in Detroit or if Dustin Hopkins makes a 34-yard field goal in London in overtime, the Redskins make the playoffs for the second year in a row. Cousins was about the least of the team’s problems. In fact, when I looked at DVOA by routes, he was one of the most effective quarterbacks on several different routes. A lot of that production was with Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, who are both gone, but if he can continue his efficiency without those guys and without offensive coordinator Sean McVay, then what more does Cousins need to prove to Washington? They still have some talent around him in Terrelle Pryor, Jamison Crowder, Josh Doctson (injured rookie year), Jordan Reed, a good offensive line, and options at running back. The offense won’t fall apart without those receivers and coordinator, but if it sustains itself without those pieces, then you have to give Cousins credit for that. He’s a good, but not great quarterback, and there aren’t too many of those around right now.

Defensively, does Josh Norman fare better in his second season with the team? He didn’t have the biggest track record in Carolina. Otherwise, we’re talking about rookie Jonathan Allen needing to make a quick impact, and the other stories here aren’t encouraging. Trent Murphy is suspended four games, DeAngelo Hall isn’t healthy, and Su’a Cravens has thought about retiring already.

So I see a bit of football purgatory here with Washington sticking around .500 and missing the playoffs again, but that’s still better to watch than quarterback hell.

AFC NORTH

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)

I could really just copy last year’s paragraph here. Can this team beat New England in a big game? That’s really what it boils down to again, because I trust the Steelers against any other AFC contender. But unlike in 2005, 2008 and 2010, you’re not going to avoid the Patriots in the playoffs to get to the Super Bowl. The AFC is too weak for that to happen now.

So what is different this time? For starters, it sure would be great if Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant could last a whole season together. They’ve only all appeared and finished 11 games since 2014. Bryant has never even played against New England. Bell went out with an injury early in the AFC Championship Game and he didn’t play in the 2015 opener. Roethlisberger missed the Week 7 game last year. So the Patriots have not seen more than two of those four guys for a full game in the last three meetings, all won by New England with the Pittsburgh defense looking bad. That’s really the bigger problem, but it doesn’t help when Pittsburgh has to invest so much money into three offensive players who are never together when the team needs them the most.

Maybe the defense actually looks at the 2011 game tape and what worked that day (press coverage). Anything would be better than the usual “how did we leave this guy so open?” game plan that Pittsburgh walks into these New England games with. They didn’t even look like they knew who Chris Hogan was in the AFC Championship Game.

I’m not sold that this is Roethlisberger’s final season. I think he’s going to Brett Favre this thing, which means at least one March retirement followed by an August return to the team for “one more try.” But if this is it, then the Steelers have made some uncharacteristic moves to help out with that. I’m just not sure that Joe Haden and Vance McDonald are the missing pieces to getting past the Patriots. Sure, those guys could be CB1 and TE1 on this team given the weakness at those positions, but Haden hasn’t been too good for a couple of years now. More than anything, the big four needs to stay healthy and I’d like to see T.J. Watt have a good pass-rushing impact as a rookie starter. The secondary is still question. Do you think the team would have moved for Haden and safety J.J. Wilcox if they were really comfortable with 2016 draft picks Artie Burns and Sean Davis?

I like the Steelers for a No. 2 seed, but even with a win at home against New England in Week 15, I still think the Patriots will win more games to make sure the playoff matchup is in Foxboro again. That’s where the Steelers really look lost against this team. What I described in the Patriots section about forcing deep balls to Cooks/Hogan instead of shredding the short stuff with Edelman could be Pittsburgh’s key to victory this year, but it will take an incredible effort to pull that one out based on how these matchups usually go.

Aside from basing everything on New England, it really could be exciting to watch this offense if Bell can make it through this season with such a heavy workload, and if Bryant returns to the athletic freak he was in 2014-15. Those are two big question marks, and the inevitable Roethlisberger injury has nearly kept this team out of the playoffs the last two years. Still, I think Pittsburgh has a significant edge over the AFC North.

2. Cincinnati Bengals (8-8)

Every year I was waiting for the Bengals to miss the playoffs after that five-year run in 2011-2015. The team was rarely great at anything in that stretch, but only last year finally saw them finish under .500. Andy Dalton still had a respectable season with A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert basically missing half of the season. If he can get those guys back to go with rookie John Ross and second-year wideout Tyler Boyd, then the Bengals have a pretty talented offense. Throw in Gio Bernard at receiving back and Joe Mixon stealing snaps from Jeremy Hill, and the Bengals have plenty of options.

However, the offensive line does look like the worst of the Dalton era. The good news is that he generally gets rid of the ball quickly, but this could be something that holds them back for sure. Dalton has never been that great under pressure.

The defense returns some standouts in Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, but Adam Jones (1 game) and Vontaze Burfict (3 games) are currently suspended. The Bengals should stick to their “solid, but not great” standing on defense.

I think the home schedule is very favorable, but don’t see the Bengals winning in Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Denver, or Minnesota.

Add it all together and a mediocre 8-8 sounds pretty reasonable.

3. Baltimore Ravens (8-8)

When I looked at QB-added value in 2016, Joe Flacco was the least valuable QB in the NFL last year. This is based on EPA by the QB relative to the rest of his team (running game, defense, special teams, penalties). Flacco wasted strong performances from his defense and special teams last year to finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs for the third time in four years since he destroyed the QB contract market.

So with a $24.5M cap hit this year, the Ravens are paying out the ass for a quarterback who smashed the record for failed completions last year with 144. What ever will Flacco do with Kyle Jusczyczhkdsflhk off to San Francisco? I guess he’ll just have to throw passes 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage to Danny Woodhead now. That’s actually a decent tradeoff for this offense, but it’s still an offense that is likely to struggle. Flacco’s not even fully healthy going into the season, so that’s another problem.

Oh, the defense should still be pretty good, meaning a pretty typical Baltimore year. Defense has to bail out the offense, and it won’t happen enough times to make the playoffs.

4. Cleveland Browns (3-13)

If the Browns finally start to turn things around, the 2017 draft will be the main reason for that. They have a potential franchise QB in DeShone Kizer, a “best player in the draft” pass-rushing prospect in Myles Garrett, and talented athletes at tight end (David Njoku) and safety (Jabrill Peppers).

They also have a boatload of future picks to make, but none of this means anything if the Browns still struggle to identify and develop talent at the pro level. The fact that they drafted so many receivers a year ago and still signed Kenny Britt and traded for Sammie Coates isn’t a ringing endorsement for the 2016 draft. But I think Kizer has some solid weapons to work with now, and it is interesting that he’s the only rookie to start in Week 1 at quarterback after going in the second round. I think he’ll be too inconsistent to have a great rookie season, and the defense still isn’t ready to do anything big, but it should at least be more exciting to watch the Browns this year than it usually has been.

NFC NORTH

1. Green Bay Packers (11-5)

The Packers and Patriots can both tie the NFL record with a ninth-consecutive playoff appearance this season. As long as Aaron Rodgers is healthy, I think that’s almost a lock, even if the Packers do like to wait until Week 17 to figure out their playoff fate. Rodgers was incredible down the stretch last year, but not so much when the Packers started 4-6. I’d like to see him return more to his 2009-2014 consistency rather than what’s gone in the last two seasons. I think he can, and that’s why he is my favorite for the MVP award this year.

I still don’t think the defense is going to be anything special, so Rodgers has to be. Martellus Bennett should be a fine upgrade at tight end for an offense that hasn’t had a lot there since Jermichael Finley. Ty Montgomery as a running back is an interesting opportunity, but I’m not sold that he’ll get a ton of touches until we see it actually happen. I still like Jordy Nelson a lot and Davante Adams came around last year after an ugly 2015. Rodgers will always extend plays with the best of them, though I’d like to see more conventional offensive efficiency. Those broken plays weren’t as successful as one may think last year.

While this team can hang its hat on making the playoffs again, one has to wonder at what point will GM Ted Thompson or HC Mike McCarthy take the heat for one Super Bowl appearance. The Patriots have three (two wins) since 2009. The Colts went to two Super Bowls (1-1 record) in their nine-year playoff streak in 2002-2010. The Cowboys went to three Super Bowls (1-2 record) in their nine-year playoff streak in 1975-1983. Green Bay has needed to do more with this high caliber of quarterback play from Rodgers, but the team is stubborn with relying on the draft. The Patriots just won the Super Bowl and immediately tried to get even better. The teams that have beaten Green Bay the last three years didn’t rest on their laurels either. The Falcons added Dontari Poe. The Cardinals traded for Chandler Jones last year. In 2015, the Seahawks traded to get Jimmy Graham. Green Bay’s biggest move in free agency in that time was replacing Jared Cook with Bennett. No, for real. It’s a way different approach to how the Patriots constantly try out new weapons for Brady, or defenders (see Gilmore) for Belichick to toy with.

I write a lot of the same things about the Packers every year, because what’s really changed? They try to win by the draft and home-grown talent. They rely heavily on Rodgers to be amazing. They still can’t be trusted to make a big comeback. 2010 is still a major outlier for Dom Capers’ defense. Green Bay has a stagnant status in this league, and while most teams would trade spots with the Packers in a heartbeat, year after year we’re left expecting more by season’s end.

2. Minnesota Vikings (9-7)

A 58-yard field goal by Detroit’s Matt Prater was really the difference in Minnesota making the playoffs as a wild-card team versus missing out at 8-8. This team is right on that cusp, but I don’t see a whole lot changing this year. The defense should play closer to the early-season dominance than the late-season fallout it displayed against the Colts and Packers. I still don’t trust Sam Bradford to win high-scoring games or elevate a team to the playoffs. They have to win with defense and play much better along the offensive line so that the running game can be better with rookie running back Dalvin Cook. I think the offensive line is better this year after adding Riley Reiff, Mike Remmers and rookie center Pat Elflein. A strong unit? Not likely, but anything would be better than this:

I think that late-season stretch where the Vikings go on the road against Detroit, Atlanta, Carolina and Green Bay in five weeks is what will ultimately keep this team out of the playoffs again. Let’s hope Teddy Bridgewater can resume his playing career soon in Minnesota. There are some good pieces in place here.

3. Detroit Lions (6-10)

By now you know a lot of the numbers. Detroit broke the NFL record with eight fourth-quarter comebacks last season, and those teams usually regress, especially in close games (drops from 66.8% wins to 40.1% wins). Matthew Stafford is the highest-paid player in NFL history despite never getting a single vote for MVP or first-team All-Pro, never winning a playoff game (0-3), and never finishing higher than 10th in passing DVOA. Yes, that 5-46 record against teams with a winning record is hard to believe, and not anywhere close to other quarterbacks of his caliber since 2009.

Stafford isn’t a typical top 10 quarterback, but we can inflate him as one in a league where Peyton Manning and Tony Romo recently retired. He’s fine, he can keep your team competitive, but he is ultimately a volume passer who can be mistake prone. He’s basically this generation’s Drew Bledsoe without getting carried to a Super Bowl appearance yet.

As I wrote in FOA 2017, Detroit was like a 5-11 team that pulled off four miracles, often on the arm of Stafford, but also with help from Matt Prater and some huge interceptions by a defense that was otherwise terrible. Stafford’s best years may very well be ahead of him, but until he reaches that point, Detroit will still be scraping by just to finish around .500. I thought I could find them more than six wins, but I simply like teams such as Cincinnati, Tampa Bay and Minnesota better this year. I do like the draft pick of Kenny Golladay and the potential of a healthy Ameer Abdullah behind the revamped right side of the line (T.J. Lang and Ricky Wagner). I’m not thrilled about injuries to Taylor Decker and Kerry Hyder. I’ve never been a Jim Caldwell fan, and I think this is a season where those close games that so often fell Detroit’s way last year go the other way this year, keeping the Lions out of the playoffs.

And let’s face it, you wouldn’t pick them to win a wild-card game anyway.

4. Chicago Bears (3-13)

It certainly is worth noting that the Bears had the most adjusted games lost to injury of any team in our database going back to 2000. Health should be better this year, though Cameron Meredith may have a few words about that. That’s an awful loss after his surprisingly good performance last season.

Last year, the Bears went 3-13, 0-8 on the road, and only won home games against the Vikings, Lions and 49ers. In 2017, I have them going 3-13, 0-8 on the road, and only winning home games against the Vikings, Lions and 49ers. Oh, and they’re still paying out the ass for quarterbacks, but instead of a Jay Cutler/Brian Hoyer/Matt Barkley three-way, it’s Mike Glennon and rookie Mitch Trubisky.

Look, I don’t feel good about the record, but I haven’t felt good about Chicago for several years now. They’ve lost Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White hasn’t been able to show anything. The offensive line is solid, but I think Glennon is a bit slower to get rid of the ball than a Hoyer or Barkley. Jordan Howard was a great find last year, but I don’t think the defense will be strong enough to keep enough games winnable for the Bears to rely on the run. I like the linebackers a lot and Leonard Floyd could have a breakout year, but the secondary is pathetic. Seriously, you just have to do better than starting Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper at corner.

Even if the Bears win six games, it’s another pointless season for this franchise. As much as I thought Glennon deserved a starting job somewhere, I don’t understand the contract he was given at all. He should be making the $6 million or so that Hoyer and McCown are making this year. Then to trade up for Trubisky, it’s just a messy situation. Best-case scenario is that Glennon plays well enough so that the Bears can move him for a high draft pick. Hell, his track record by then will be greater than that of Matt Cassel, Matt Hasselbeck, Matt Flynn, and Matt Schaub when they were given big deals elsewhere. Guess the only problem is his name isn’t Matt Glennon, but I’ll be damned if Gumby can’t stand nice and tall for every anthem this season.

AFC SOUTH

1. Tennessee Titans (10-6)

I’m a little hesitant about buying into Tennessee like many people have. But I also know that the best way to end an eight-year playoff drought is with strong quarterback play. You like to think the Titans have that with Marcus Mariota, and they’ve built around him well with adding Corey Davis and Eric Decker. They also have two solid backs and TE Delanie Walker. The offensive line is pretty solid, especially at tackle.

The criticisms I have on Mariota so far are durability and too many turnovers in 4QC/GWD situations. With the latter, this team likely wins the AFC South last year if not for some untimely turnovers (several returned for touchdowns) by Mariota late in games. With his durability, in two years he’s already had three injuries that caused him to miss starts. That’s more than most top QBs in this era have in their whole careers.

If Mariota can stay healthy and play like he did after last year’s slow start, then the Titans have a good one here. On defense, I expect better results than last year, but still not a top unit. Brian Orakpo was a good pickup last year. A player I think can become a household name in 2017 is safety Kevin Byard. It seemed like every time this offseason when I went to look up a play or something involving the Titans defense, there he was doing something valuable for the team. He was one of the best against the run and the pass last year. The Titans could use a strong force in the secondary after letting long-time corner Jason McCourty go.

I think the Titans have a few statement games on the schedule that can show they’re a contender this year. They’ll host Seattle in Week 3, and they really need to beat the Colts at home in Week 6. The Titans haven’t beaten the Colts with Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck at quarterback since the 2008 season, the last time they were a playoff team. Luck will hopefully be back for that one, but it’s a big mental hurdle to get over for this team. I think there’s a stretch late in the year that’s really tough when the Titans travel to play the Steelers, Colts and Cardinals in a four-game span.

But we know 10-6 is more than enough to win the AFC South these days. Hey, Sunday’s game with Oakland could easily be a wild-card preview. Some new blood for a change. But again, don’t get crazy in thinking this team will seriously challenge New England and get to a Super Bowl. It’s a process. Plus, we’re talking about a team coached by Mike Mularkey and a defense led by Dick LeBeau. The Patriots shouldn’t have to worry about the Titans this year, but the future finally looks bright here.

2. Indianapolis Colts (8-8)

The Colts have somehow fallen into NFL purgatory: not good enough to make the playoffs (not even in the AFC South), not bad enough to get a top 10 draft pick. Well, at least the explanation for why this team isn’t one of the AFC elites going into Andrew Luck’s sixth season is obvious. Ryan Grigson was a horrible GM and the barrage of hits on Luck year after year has had an effect.

Oh, Luck was still fantastic last year. Arguably his finest season yet. Sure, he’d like to have a few throws against the Texans and Jaguars (London) back, but he did more than enough to drag this team what could have easily been a 10-5 record in his starts. That would have meant a home playoff game against the Raiders with Connor Cook at quarterback. But the defense couldn’t hold up a 35-34 lead in the final 37 seconds against Detroit. The defense somehow blew a 14-point lead in the final seven minutes to Brock Osweiler. There’s your postseason gone.

Now the Colts open 2017 with Scott Tolzien at quarterback, because Luck still isn’t healthy enough after offseason surgery. We knew this could be the case months ago, so why didn’t the Colts do something more reasonable like bring in Colin Kaepernick or make this shocking trade of Phillip Dorsett for Jacoby Brissett weeks ago? They’re stuck with Tolzien now, and what looked like a winnable opener against the Rams now looks like a likely loss. By the time Luck comes back, this team could be in a 1-3 hole, and that’s assuming Cleveland is a win at home.

I still have the Colts at 8-8, because I expect Luck to return and think the post-bye schedule is where they can really clean up. But this expected rough start is likely going to ruin any chance at a return to the playoffs. The defense is still a huge eyesore, so I don’t see Tolzien being able to rely on that or the running game with Frank Gore to win games in Luck’s absence.

If you’ve been a fan of this team recently, then the NFL’s just not the same right now without Peyton Manning and with the Colts relying on backup quarterbacks to finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs. The Colts were an annual contender for the better part of two decades, but they’re just another team these days.

3. Houston Texans (5-11)

Houston ranked 29th in DVOA last year, one of the worst marks ever for a playoff team, but thus is the benefit of the AFC South. Getting the best defender in football (J.J. Watt) back should be a boost, and it’s hard to do much worse than Brock Osweiler last year, but let’s not count out Tom Savage just yet. Yes, the fact that Savage is the starter in Week 1 is rather annoying, as he is clearly a poor stop-gap to Deshaun Watson. However, I have grown used to Bill O’Brien making our NFL viewing lives as miserable as possible.

I really had high hopes that Watson, who the Texans traded up to get, would have a Russell Wilson/Dak Prescott impact on Houston this year, which could be a team to deal with provided competent quarterback play. We saw this in the playoffs in New England where the defense did a respectable job, but that brutal special teams unit and Osweiler (along with Will Fuller’s hands) were not up to the task. Unfortunately, Watson did not seem up to the task this preseason. Granted, preseason isn’t everything, but Wilson and Prescott dominated there to help them win the Week 1 starting job. So I’m skeptical of Watson’s impact this season, but I doubt Savage makes it through 16 starts. We’ll see the Clemson star soon enough.

I don’t feel great about the 5-win projection here, because O’Brien churns out 9-7 seasons with subpar quarterback play, a passing offense that generates the least YAC, and now has Watt and Clowney together for a change. But I just think the road schedule is tough on Houston, the offense will struggle to score points, and the rest of the AFC South should be better this year.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)

Blake Bortles made his NFL debut against the Colts in 2014. He entered the game in the third quarter with Jacksonville down 30-0. “The Garbage Man” was born.

But if he still stinks this year, then that has to be it in Jacksonville. Sure, he’ll probably hold onto an NFL job for the next eight years, because he’s white and stands for the anthem, but there’s no way he should start for this team in 2018 after four years of mostly lousy play. 60-plus starts is plenty of evidence.

I have said a few times in light of the ridiculous contracts signed by Derek Carr and Matthew Stafford that Bortles is one strong season away from becoming the highest-paid player in NFL history. You may laugh, but I am a little serious.

Does this scenario not sound plausible? Bortles does improve his statistics in a noticeable way (TD:INT ratio) this year. The Jaguars shock everyone and win about 10 games to capture the AFC South. At that point, what’s stopping the team from signing him to at least $25 million per season? I could even hear a ridiculous Tom Coughlin statement like “I’m sure this was the Blake they expected to get when they drafted him third overall in 2014, so we’re glad to keep him in the fold long-term” after the bogus signing.

Yes, a guy who we just talked about being benched for Chad Henne days ago is one big stat season and playoff appearance away from having a resume that’s not that far off from the other “highest-paid players in NFL history.”

And I would love to see it happen in the most farcical way possible. I’m talking like a 2007 Derek Anderson or 2010 Josh Freeman type of season, but far worse.

Things I want to see before Jacksonville pays out the ass for him:

  • Bortles throws single-digit interceptions, but leads the NFL with 14+ dropped interceptions.
  • Bortles fumbles 12 times, but somehow loses 0 of them.
  • His receivers drop the fewest passes in the league.
  • His receivers make the most YAC+ plays in the NFL, including several long touchdowns on screens, blown coverages, and broken tackles.
  • Clear splits that his numbers were beefed up against terrible defenses.
  • For him to set an NFL-record for 1-to-3 yard touchdown passes.
  • For The Garbage Man to absolutely crush garbage time in the six games Jacksonville loses en route to that 10-6 division title, inflating those season stats even more. I’m talking Matt Cassel vs. 2010 Broncos Hall of Garbage Time Fame stuff.
  • We’ll be able to say “he played the Colts without Vontae and J.J. Watt missed the second Houston game.”
  • Jacksonville’s young, super talented defense rises to the top five in the league and is the main reason for this winning record, QBWINZ be damned.

Basically, the most misleading stat line and record you’ll ever see attached to a quarterback’s name. Please, sign him after all of that happens.

NFC SOUTH

1. Atlanta Falcons (11-5)

I saved the Falcons as my last team to write about. Maybe I’m viewing this as my eulogy to the 2016 season.

With Atlanta, there’s the football stuff and the mental stuff to talk about this year. The football part is pretty simple. The historic offense will regress this year, because that’s what historic offenses do. You don’t just improve on what the Falcons did last year, especially when you lose your offensive coordinator and don’t make any significant roster upgrades. Having said that, Kyle Shanahan is not a special soothsayer. In fact, he’s the No.1 reason “28-3” happened. Run the god damn ball. It’s that simple. When Shanahan left Houston, the 2010 Texans improved to No. 2 in offensive DVOA. He was also in Atlanta in 2015 when things were at their worst in the Matt Ryan era. So he’s not irreplaceable by any means.

Given the talent still here, I expect Ryan to have a top-five QB season and lead this offense to a lot of points. TE Austin Hooper might have a breakout year. The defense is where the Falcons have to get a lot better, and I think that’s possible with young players getting better, Dontari Poe coming over at NT, and the return of CB1 Desmond Trufant. Atlanta improved on defense down the stretch last year, but as we know, couldn’t get that final stop in SB LI. I don’t think the defense will be top 10 or anything, but it should fare better than 2016’s No. 26 ranking in DVOA. There won’t be as many shootouts necessary for Atlanta to win this year.

The Falcons were a strong 11-5 team. They led in the fourth quarter of every game after Week 1, but still lost five times, including you know what. This team played very well for much of the season, but just didn’t close out a few games like you have to if you are to win a championship.

So many people are going to write off the Falcons this year for not being able to get over the devastation of 28-3. I get that, but it’s just not very true of NFL history. These are professionals. They get over things by getting better. The 1971 Dolphins were embarrassed 24-3 in the Super Bowl (only team to not score a touchdown), but came back to go 17-0 in 1972. The 1990 Buffalo Bills lost on a last-second field goal in the Super Bowl, but still rallied to make three more trips to the big game (all losses). They even had to overcome an NFL-record 32-point deficit against the Oilers in 1992. How did Houston handle that choke? Well, it started 1-4 in 1993, but rallied to finish 12-4. Oh, they still choked away another postseason game to the Chiefs, but that’s besides the point. The 2005 Colts had a horrible ending to their season when Tony Dungy’s son committed suicide and they lost in a dramatic game to Pittsburgh. At that point, you didn’t know if they would ever win a Super Bowl after blowing a season where they looked like the best team. They still started 9-0 in 2006, overcame a rough patch and won the Super Bowl.

So teams do come back well from devastating losses all the time. I don’t think Atlanta is going to worry much at all about 28-3 this year. If there’s a game where there could be a mental block, it would be in New England. And if they happen to meet again in the Super Bowl, then okay, I can see that being a bit of a problem. Maybe some embrace the opportunity, and maybe some try too hard that night. I’d sign up to see that though, and I think every Atlanta player would sign up today for that game if they could. The Falcons were the better team for much of the game, but it’s just incredible how they never delivered the knockout punch. I said earlier you can list the moments that went wrong after 28-3, and I’m going to try doing that now. I’m sure I’ll forget a few too as I’ve tried to erase these memories.

  • 6:04 left, 3Q (ATL leads 28-3): NE converts a fourth-and-3 to Danny Amendola. A stop at midfield would have put Atlanta in great shape to score again.
  • 1:30 left, 3Q (ATL leads 28-9): A holding penalty on Jake Matthews turns a second-and-1 at the NE 32 into second-and-11 at the NE 42, out of FG range. An incompletion and sack of Ryan lead to a punt.
  • 8:31 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-12): The turning point. Falcons throw on third-and-1, Devonta Freeman misses the block, Ryan is sacked and fumbles. Patriots take over at the ATL 25. This had to be a running play.
  • 5:56 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-18): Stop a two-point conversion and you’re still in great shape. The Falcons didn’t. James White takes a direct snap to make it 28-20. Game on.
  • 3:56 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-20): Ryan is sacked for a 12-yard loss on second down at the NE 23. The other major turning point. You just hit the Julio Jones pass to get into field-goal range. Kneel down three times if you have to. The pass here was insane.
  • 3:50 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-20): Matthews has another horrible holding penalty, wiping out a Ryan completion to the NE 26. Matt Bryant could have made a field goal there, but on third-and-33, Ryan threw incomplete and the Falcons had to punt from the NE 45.
  • 2:28 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-20): Robert Alford can clinch his Super Bowl MVP with a second interception of Tom Brady, but the pass goes off his hands, and he even helps keep the ball alive with his leg while a diving Julian Edelman makes an unbelievable catch for 23 yards.
  • 0:57 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-26): Alright, you’re not going to give up TWO two-point conversions, are you Atlanta? Yes, you did, and on a bubble screen of all things. By then, your goose was cooked, because you know the Patriots weren’t going to give the ball back in overtime after winning the coin toss.

Any one of those eight things goes right for the Falcons and Atlanta is the reigning champion. I even could have mentioned a couple of third-and-longs that would have put NE in troubling fourth-and-longs. Even if the Falcons rip off two Super Bowl wins here, they’ll always feel sick about the one that got away. But if you’re on this team, then you have to know that you were really that close to pulling it off. Some of these teams feel so far away from competing for this, but the Falcons are built well and in good shape to finish the job this year.

2. Carolina Panthers (11-5)

If you told me the Panthers could win anywhere from 5 to 13 games this year, I’d agree with you. One of the hardest teams to predict this season; such  a wide range of options. Much like the accuracy of a Cam Newton pass, you never know what you’re going to get here. It could be great like 2015, or it could be lousy like 2014 and 2016.

I was very adamant about the 14-0 start in 2015 being a fluke, and after the Broncos stifled Carolina’s offense in Super Bowl 50, the Panthers had the biggest drop (nine wins) in NFL history for a 15-1 team. That didn’t surprise me too much, but I did expect a playoff team last year. Clearly, the defense was not as good without Josh Norman, and Luke Kuechly also missed six games. When the offense wasn’t playing with a bunch of great field position thanks to the takeaways on defense, we saw struggles to score, and a lot of incompletions from Cam. Health was also an issue and he had his fewest rushing yards yet in a season by a margin of 180 yards.

This is why I like the selection of running back Christian McCaffrey, who has looked very fast on an NFL field this preseason. Carolina still has to show they will use him in multiple ways in games that count, but I don’t see how you draft a guy that high and treat him like he’s Jonathan Stewart. So that should be a big add and help keep the offense centered more around the run where the offensive line can play to its strength better.

But this really is about the defense getting back to an elite level and helping Newton take advantage of short fields. I think the schedule is pretty favorable to the Panthers, and only the road game in New England feels like one where they’ll be significantly disadvantaged.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-6)

I believe Tampa Bay is on the right track, but just had them missing the No. 6 seed due to a head-to-head loss with a team I haven’t mentioned yet. I think you’ll see a team that improves in DVOA on both sides of the ball, led by Jameis Winston on offense and Lavonte David on defense. I just don’t think Tampa Bay is ready to do things like beat New England or win in Green Bay.

Winston really is Cam Newton’s doppelganger. They both throw the deepest passes in the league at over 10 air yards per attempt. They led the NFL in off-target throw rate, partially due to the difficulty of their throws. They love to make things happen under pressure, and Winston actually had the highest QBR under pressure of any quarterback season since 2006 according to ESPN’s database. They both need really tall receivers to bring down some of those high or wide throws. I think Winston has a chance to become a more consistent passer than what Newton has done through six years, but we’ll see. Winston really does throw some dumb interceptions, and we saw that this preseason as well.

You have to love what the Buccaneers did in the offseason for Winston by adding DeSean Jackson and tight end O.J. Howard. Jackson should give Winston the speedy deep threat that Vincent Jackson (height, but age) no longer could be. Howard has a lot of potential, but I wouldn’t expect much this season as that is usually the case with rookie tight ends. Cameron Brate is a solid player too. They have weapons, they don’t have a great offensive line, but the mobile quarterback helps make up for some of that.

I just think the team is still too young to take that next step, and starting Chris Conte at safety doesn’t do them any favors either. But the Buccaneers should be fun to watch this year and will definitely be a trendy playoff pick in 2018.

4. New Orleans Saints (7-9)

Seasons finishing 7-9:

  • Jeff Fisher (four in 20 full years)
  • Sean Payton (four in 10 years)

What’s that? For almost half of his coaching career, Sean Payton has been 7-9 Bullshit. I actually had the Saints at 8-8 after the first run through, but gave another win away to have them at 7-9 for the fourth year in a row.

It’s really sad that this has become the expectations for the Saints given the continued stellar play from Drew Brees. I wanted to write something very detailed about Brees before Week 1, but ran out of time. I guess next offseason works too, because I don’t see the Saints improving enough on defense to get back to the playoffs this year. It would take just a move up to mediocrity really, but I’m just not sold yet when I look at the starting lineup on that side of the ball.

Even the offense makes me worry a little with the trade of Brandin Cooks and three-game suspension for Willie Snead, but if anyone can make it work, it’s Brees. He helped Michael Thomas to the most rookie DYAR ever last year. The running back depth chart is deep, though I don’t have high expectations for Adrian Peterson anymore.

Brees can seemingly throw for 5,000 yards and be one of the most accurate passers with any supporting cast, but it’s just not enough when your defense hemorrhages points at the rate of New Orleans’ defense.

I recently looked at what keeps a great QB out of the playoffs. The fact that Brees has had seven healthy seasons with 16 starts where he missed the playoffs is staggering. It’s the most in NFL history.

I looked at every QB season since 1989 when a team missed the playoffs. Brees has 9,485 total DYAR in the 10 seasons where he missed the playoffs. That’s almost double the next-closest quarterback (Philip Rivers, 4,878 DYAR).

BreesPO

Once we add 1986-88 for Dan Marino, he’ll be second to Brees, but still not even close. We always think of Marino as the best example of a quarterback who had his career wasted by his team’s lack of running game and defense. Well, fortunately Brees had an efficient running game in 2009, and when it disappeared in the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl, he had Tracy Porter picking off Brett Favre and Peyton Manning. Marino never had that luxury, but Brees is really the one who should have more playoff starts where he has been amazing in his career.

To be continued (because I’m sure things won’t change in 2017 for the Saints)

AFC WEST

1. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5)

From FOA 2017:

“How do you get Alex Smith to throw for 4,000 yards? Tell him it’s third down with 4,500 yards to go. In all seriousness, Smith passed for a career-high 3,502 yards last season. Since Smith was drafted in 2005, quarterbacks have passed for more yards than he did last year 164 times. By this point, we know exactly what type of quarterback Smith is. The same can likely be said for the Chiefs, hence the aggressive trade to get Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City.”

I compared the Chiefs to the Broncos circa 2003-2006. That team made the playoffs three years in a row with Mike Shanahan getting the best out of Jake Plummer, but couldn’t get past teams like the Colts and Steelers. Jay Cutler was drafted in the first round in 2006 and eventually replaced Plummer for the final five games of the season. I can see Mahomes doing that to Smith, but maybe the Chiefs will wait until 2018. Then again, who thought the Chiefs would fire their GM and let Jeremy Maclin go after June? It was a strange offseason for what should be a top contender in the AFC.

What Smith can do is play well to keep Mahomes on the bench. I’m not sure a player can suddenly reach a new level in Year 13, but I guess Steve DeBerg did it for the Chiefs in 1990 (his 23 TD, 4 INT year).

I really thought I’d have Oakland jumping ahead of the Chiefs, but it just didn’t turn out that way when I went through each game. I have the teams splitting this year rather than another KC sweep, but they certainly have Derek Carr’s number at this point.

There are plenty of reasons why I think the Chiefs have the best shot to beat the Patriots in the AFC. If you haven’t noticed by now, that’s kind of the whole point of this season. Everyone’s trying to dethrone New England. The Chiefs have a good coach in Andy Reid, certainly better than Mike Tomlin and Jack Del Rio. Sure, he has his time management screw-ups, but the clock doesn’t matter if you kick New England’s ass 41-14 like the Chiefs did in 2014, the last time the Patriots looked that bad. Reid also had the Chiefs in a 27-20 game in the 2015 playoffs in NE that really swung on a Knile Davis fumble. He didn’t get blown out like Tomlin. As a 25-ponit underdog, Reid gave the 2007 Patriots all they could handle after their dominant 10-0 start, and nearly pulled off the upset with A.J. Feeley as his quarterback. There was also that close Super Bowl XXXIX loss to the Patriots. Reid can hang with Belichick despite the inferior QB play.

One thing about Smith’s safe style is that he usually avoids turnovers, so the Chiefs could win the turnover battle in New England given their ball-hawking secondary led by Marcus Peters and Eric Berry. The Chiefs like to run the ball, and while the loss of Spencer Ware sucks, maybe Kareem Hunt is the rookie for the task. The Chiefs could put together some time-consuming drives (to their benefit this time) in NE, because remember, that defense looks shaky on paper in the front seven. The strength is in the secondary, and it’s not like Smith will go crazy in forcing it there. They can rely on Travis Kelce to out-Gronk Gronk instead, and Tyreek Hill offers a lot of flexibility. Kansas City also annually has great special teams thanks to coordinator Dave Toub. That’s another area where they could outplay the Patriots. Justin Houston and Dee Ford make up a nice pass-rushing duo, which could get after Brady without the Chiefs having to blitz too much.

Sure, there are flaws here. I don’t think Hill is a legit WR1, I think he’s more like Percy Harvin at best, so the Maclin release was odd. The corners after Peters aren’t very impressive either. The OL is hardly going to be confused for Dallas or Oakland. Smith’s limitations are well documented, but it’s not like you go into New England to win 35-28 games. You win 21-14 games there, doing it with defense. Pittsburgh and Oakland just don’t have the defense. Tomlin and Del Rio have a putrid history against Brady’s offense. Simple as that.

I know many will predict the Chiefs to fall off this year, and maybe Smith regresses and loses the job to Mahomes sooner than we expect. None of that would surprise me, but I still think this is a very talented roster, a balanced team, and the best hope in the conference of keeping the Patriots out of another Super Bowl.

Christ, did I really just say that Andy Reid and Alex Smith are the AFC’s best hope against New England? If you told me this would be the future back in 2005-07, I might have started paying more attention to the NBA and NHL.

2. Oakland Raiders (10-6)

Yep, that about sums it up, but I’ll explain. Oakland was arguably the worst 12-4 team in NFL history last season. The Raiders’ plus-31 scoring differential was the smallest ever for a 12-win team. The seven fourth-quarter comebacks were the second most by a team in NFL history. The Raiders were the NFL’s only team to not blow a fourth-quarter lead in 2016. While no one had more penalties than Oakland, the big calls largely went in their favor. Derek Carr’s 19 drawn defensive pass interference penalties are the most by any QB in a season since 1986, and perhaps the most ever given the NFL’s history with passing volume and penalties. Carr was the only QB to throw a dropped interception (Eric Weddle in Baltimore) on the same drive that he threw a game-winning touchdown (the very next play) in 2016. Carr also had two terrible throws on fourth down in the final minutes against the Saints and Buccaneers that were erased by bogus penalties on the defense. So for all the “clutch” talk about Carr last year, I basically saw a guy get away with three game-losing throws for a team that easily could have been 9-7 with a fairly lousy defense. Let’s not even get into every call and decision going Oakland’s way in Mexico City against Houston on a Monday night. Oakland’s offense also had the best starting field position in the league.

So what I’m telling you is simple: Oakland wasn’t as good as its record last year, and I think this team will win fewer games this season. That doesn’t mean they can’t actually get better and be in better position to beat a team like Kansas City or New England. Last year, the Raiders beat single-digit win teams, but went 0-3 against the Chiefs (12-4) and Falcons (11-5). And regardless of Carr’s broken leg and the efforts of Khalil Mack, that defense made Brock Osweiler look decent. Twice.

From FOA 2017:

“It is not an insult to believe that the Raiders will regress and win fewer games this season. Stacking 12-win seasons is a very difficult thing to do in this league. Joe Montana, Steve Young, Roger Staubach, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Matt Ryan have never stacked together consecutive 12-win seasons, to give a few notable examples. A team basically has to have Peyton Manning or Tom Brady at quarterback to consistently win 12 games a year, and Derek Carr is not at that level yet.”

No, Carr is most certainly not at that MVP level yet despite the six votes he actually received for the award last year. He’s improved a lot from his rookie year, but when you’re barely beating out Sam Bradford and Trevor Siemian in yards per pass attempt, how good are you really playing the position? Carr has yet to lead the Oakland offense to a top 10 ranking in yards per drive or points per drive, which is something a top QB routinely does.

Carr is the Cautious Gunslinger, an oxymoron if there ever was one. He’s “checkdown or touchdown” personified. Sure, he’ll force some dangerous throws into small windows, but he’ll also check the ball down with no pressure around him behind an excellent offensive line. He even set a single-game record (back to 1989) for failed completions with 18 against Tampa Bay last year. He’s hard to pressure, but I think his sack avoidance, undeniably built from watching his brother get pummeled, can be a detriment to this offense at times. Carr’s red-zone production has also dropped each year, and he missed a lot of close touchdowns with Amari Cooper last year on throws that were caught out of bounds — the rare slim margin that didn’t go Oakland’s way last year.

This is an offensive-driven team, but the defense was again quite good at holding the late lead. I just don’t think they’ll hold up as well in those moments this year, which is why Oakland could win fewer games despite better performance on both sides of the ball. Again, going 12-4 or better is really hard in this league. It’s not as easy as the Patriots make it look sometimes. The AFC West is also very deep and challenging. Carr has yet to have a really good game against the Chiefs or Broncos.

I think a lot of people want to pick Oakland just because it’s been a while and we can’t stand watching the Patriots win year after year. That’s fine, but it’s just not very likely that this team will out-coach or outplay the Pats this year. The defense has too many flaws to stand up to that Brady-led offense that has always given Del Rio fits. The offense’s strength are the outside receivers in Cooper and Michael Crabtree, but that plays into the hands of Belichick’s corners. Sure, Marshawn Lynch is a wild card and I’m thrilled he’s back in the league, but I’m keeping my expectations low after a year off and a bad 2015 from him. He should enjoy the line in front of him though.

So we’ll see if Oakland can get better this year without it actually being reflected on the W-L record. I think that’s likely, but I was still able to find one extra win for the Chiefs to take the division title. The Chiefs have a better coach, defense and special teams than Oakland. The quarterback edge still goes to Carr, but it’s not by the wide margin some people think.

At least not to this point.

3. San Diego Los Angeles Chargers (9-7)

I can’t help it, I still want to call them San Diego. The Chargers are a trendy pick this year, and I totally get it. The starting lineup looks pretty nice on both sides of the ball. Mike McCoy is gone. The injuries can’t possibly always be this bad, can they? They can’t blow another handful of fourth-quarter leads, can they?

Well, if 2015 to 2016 is any indication, they sure can repeat those bad things. The Chargers have blown 11 fourth-quarter leads since 2015, including six last year. That’s incredible when you consider the team has nine wins in that time. The injuries were really bad last year, especially at wide receiver and to cornerback Jason Verrett.

But with Verrett back, the Chargers have a nice corner duo for Gus Bradley (new DC) to work with Verrett and Casey Hayward. The Chargers also have a good pass-rushing duo in Joey Bosa (let’s see a full year from him now) and Melvin Ingram. Those are very desirable things for every defense, and the Chargers have both locked up.

You still like Philip Rivers as a competent QB, even if he peaked back in 2008-09. I think new coach Anthony Lynn will be good for him, especially if he gets Melvin Gordon off to a career year. Lynn has that ground-and-pound mentality, and while Rivers will still throw 500+ passes, the Chargers should be more balanced this year. They still have strong WR depth in Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams, Travis Benjamin, and maybe will get something out of No. 7 pick Mike Williams (another one!?) after all. Hunter Henry, after a nice rookie campaign, is ready to replace Antonio Gates as the top TE. The downside is that offensive line, but Rivers has always managed to survive it and start every game. His teammates have been less fortunate. Guard Forrest Lamp has already been lost for the season, and the rookie was a draft favorite. That sucks, but we’ll see if Russell Okung can get the job done at the all-important left tackle position.

I really like the starting lineup, but I’m just waiting for the injuries to pile up and ruin this thing. The Chargers should remain competitive in most games and definitely challenge for a wild card all season long. I’ve seen some pick them for the AFC West, but I still think Kansas City and Oakland have more top-tier talent and less impending sense of doom.

4. Denver Broncos (6-10)

Much of what I wrote last year still applies. I was all on the 8-8 bandwagon for Denver last season, and I think barring a few special teams mistakes from Carolina (Gano GW miss on opening night) and New Orleans (blocked XP returned for GW 2PC), I’d have nailed that one. The Broncos also got to finish 2016 with a home win against the Raiders without Derek Carr, and even second-stringer Matt McGloin went down with injury in that one.

With Denver this year, I understand why Trevor Siemian is getting the starting job, but this is really bad news for Paxton Lynch’s future.

Siemian was better than I expected last season, but there’s still a pretty low ceiling on his career. I don’t think there’s much left to see that we haven’t already seen from him, and regardless of QB choice, the Broncos still have big question marks at OL, inconsistent running backs, and no real third receiving option. Yeah, I would like to see Jamaal Charles get back to contributing in a big way, but that ship has likely sailed by way of injury in his career.

So it comes back to the defense, which will have to stand up against a pretty tough schedule with the six division games and NFC East (10 quality opponent games right there if you ask me). The Broncos also have to play the Patriots again, and scored just three points last year at home. The lack of scoring doomed Denver late in the year during a three-game losing streak. That can certainly happen again to this offense, which returns Mike McCoy to his old post of offensive coordinator. But I think the loss of veteran coaching in Gary Kubiak and Wade Phillips cannot be ignored. Rookie head coach Vance Joseph and defensive coordinator Joe Woods are new to these roles, and don’t have anywhere near the acumen of their predecessors, who were two of the few coaches capable of going toe to toe with a Belichick.

It’s also really hard to sustain such defensive greatness for three years in a row. Players get hurt, they get old, and they move on. We’ve already seen DeMarcus Ware retire, T.J. Ward get released in a pretty surprising move. Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett have battled injury, leaving little depth behind Von Miller on the edge right now. The defense should still be quite good, but it needs to be incredible to compensate for this offense.

The Broncos should take a step back this year until they can take a step forward at the quarterback position. I would have loved to see Tony Romo leading this team, but at least he’s spared us from Phil Simms. I’m willing to sacrifice seeing quality offensive football in Denver again if it means no more Phil.

NFC WEST

1. Seattle Seahawks (12-4)

Last year: “Maybe there’s a Russell Wilson injury behind a suspect offensive line that’s the main culprit for a decline.”

Whoops, didn’t mean to bring some bad voodoo his way, but that’s exactly what happened, and it was as early as Week 1 against Miami. Wilson’s leg injuries certainly impacted his usual playing style and playmaking ability.

I also wrote last year that Seattle started to show some cracks and the historic streak of games with a lead or being within one score in the fourth quarter was going to end. It did end at 98 games in Tampa Bay in Week 12, but what a streak that was. Even if the streak continued, it would have ended in Green Bay (Week 14) or in Atlanta (NFC divisional loss). Seattle got spanked twice last year after Earl Thomas went down with injury, and Richard Sherman was also playing injured for much of the season.

Seattle was still good enough to go 10-5-1 and win a playoff game at home, but expectations are for so much more than that. I think a healthy Wilson will make a huge difference, even if the cheap offensive line is still heavily flawed. Yes, last year’s injuries that threatened to keep him out of action are the main concern with a bad line, but it’s not like Wilson hasn’t been dealing with this for most of his career. That’s the risk you take, and it has allowed Seattle to spend elsewhere, namely in keeping together a great defense. Add Sheldon Richardson from a trade with the Jets to that mix, and a Seattle defense we already projected to be No. 1 at FO should be even stronger.

Tyler Lockett is another Seattle player who should return from injury. Between better health, a deeper running back corps (look out for receiving back C.J. Prosise too), and the Richardson move, it’s hard to imagine the Seahawks don’t get back to first-round bye status. It’s just that they have to open in Green Bay this Sunday, and that game could go a long way in deciding home-field advantage. Hell, it did in 2014 when Seattle beat Green Bay in Week 1 and both finished 12-4. You may recall how that matchup played out in the NFC Championship Game. This weekend is huge for the Seahawks in pursuit of that second Lombardi. The Legion of Boom era does have a closing window, so opportunities like this cannot be wasted.

2. Arizona Cardinals (10-6)

I was so worried about picking Arizona to do great things in 2016 due to the age of star players (namely Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald) and the durability of Palmer and Tyrann Mathieu. Well, some of my fears were confirmed. Mathieu missed six more games. Palmer only missed one game, but his efficiency did take a big drop from that stellar 2015, and he was the most hit quarterback in 2016, which I didn’t expect. However, that part really isn’t that unexpected in a Bruce Arians offense. John Brown’s health also wasn’t there for this team, and Michael Floyd fell apart. Fitzgerald led the NFL in catches, but averaged a career-low 9.6 yards per reception. I’d be worried a little about him as far as producing efficient gains given his age (34 now).

But in the end, special teams failed the Cardinals as much as anything last year. We saw it on opening night when Belichick willed another kicker to miss a game-winning field goal against his team. Chandler Catanzaro also choked on a gimme FG in that 6-6 tie with Seattle, which I especially hated to see happen. A botched FG returned for a TD in Buffalo didn’t help matters either, nor did allowing a 104-yard kick return TD to Cordarrelle Patterson in a 30-24 loss to the Vikings.

So it would have been pretty easy for this team to win 9-10 games with a competent ST unit. Catanzaro has been replaced by Phil Dawson, a good move.

Palmer also has David Johnson to feed the ball to in many different ways. Johnson was used out of the slot more than any other RB in the passing game last year. On defense, the line looks pretty shaky without Calais Campbell and his awesome voice no longer there. But this is why you draft a Robert Nkemdiche in the first round. He has to step up after a no-show rookie year. Left tackle D.J. Humphries was once in the dog house too, but is starting to pan out for the team. They need Nkemdiche to follow a similar path. This is still a pretty talented defense with Mathieu, Deone Bucannon, Chandler Jones, and of course Patrick Peterson.

Protect Palmer better. Improve the special teams. That should do the trick to get back to that 10-6 range the Cardinals were at in Arians’ first three seasons.

3. Los Angeles Rams (6-10)

As sure as the sun rises in the East, Jared Goff ranked last in just about every 2016 statistical category. I don’t know how many QB stat studies I wrote this offseason that had to point out how awful Goff was. Not just worst of 2016, but the worst season in many of our advanced stats going back to 2006. Sometimes by a wide margin too. The most discouraging stat of them all is -45.2% DVOA without pressure. Yes, without pressure. Anything under +10% is usually indicative of a quarterback who cannot be a worthwhile starter in this league. The next-worst season for any quarterback with at least 200 passes since 2010 was Brady Quinn, who had -6.7% DVOA without pressure for the 2012 Chiefs. Yes, we’re talking about a drop at the bottom from -6.7% to -45.2%.

You remember that hole Christian Bale had to climb out of in The Dark Knight Rises? Quadruple that and that’s about how far Goff is away from being NFL average.

Sean McVay has his work cut out for him, but at least he’s an offensive-minded coach who just happens to look like the latest cast member on a CW show. He has to get the offensive line fixed, and Todd Gurley back on track. At least they’ll be helped by the additions of Robert Woods, Sammy Watkins, Cooper Kupp, rookie TE Gerald Everett, and left tackle Andrew Whitworth. Right about now, Tyrod Taylor is like “can you believe this shit?” Goff has enough help to at least elevate this offense back to something respectable. After all, he was the No. 1 overall pick for a reason, right? We try to keep thinking there’s a glimmer of hope since it was just seven starts on a Jeff Fisher-coached offense that has stunk for a decade. But it was so nightmarish-ly bad, and Goff’s numbers were so much worse than even Case Keenum’s in the same offense, that it is scary to think what he’ll do this year.

I simply cannot wait until next offseason to do a huge table comparison of Goff’s 2016 vs. 2017. I can’t imagine he doesn’t improve, but he still might easily be a bottom-three starting QB in the NFL.

The good news is that Wade Phillips should do wonders with the defense, which he usually does when he changes jobs. The problem is Aaron Donald’s holdout might be legit. I expect the Rams to make him the highest-paid defender in NFL history, and given the makeup of the team, why the hell wouldn’t they do it? But he really needs to get out there for this team to try clawing back to 8-8. I feel like I was generous in picking some of the wins for the Rams this year, including another one over the Seahawks (Wade calling pressures vs. that OL is scary). This could easily be another one of the 3-13 teams if Goff plays like he did last year.

4. San Francisco 49ers (2-14)

If the young defensive talent produces quicker than expected, then this could easily be a 5-6 win team, but still in last place this year. Get ready for about 50 in-cuts from Brian Hoyer to Pierre Garcon this year. Marquise Goodwin might catch the occasional play-action bomb in Kyle Shanahan’s offensive system, but Garcon is the only guy to really trust in this receiving corps.

But this could be a nice destination for a Kirk Cousins in 2018, provided that the defensive front seven lives up to the draft hype: Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas, and Reuben Foster are all first-round draft picks. NaVorro Bowman is still there, as is Aaron Lynch, Tank Carradine, and Eli Harold. Cornerback can really use an upgrade, but I’d imagine that will be addressed next offseason.

If I don’t wrap this up I’ll be writing these predictions into the offseason. This is my longest single piece ever at 16,444 words.

PLAYOFFS

AFC

  1. New England (14-2)

  2. Pittsburgh (12-4)

  3. Kansas City (11-5)

  4. Tennessee (10-6)

  5. Oakland (10-6)

  6. Los Angeles (9-7)

The Chiefs haven’t won a home playoff game since the 1993 season. That finally happens as they take care of the Chargers in a third matchup of the year. Oakland gets by Tennessee, kicking off the irrational Derek Carr vs. Marcus Mariota argument for the next 10 years. The Raiders fall hard in New England, a surprise after their emotional win over the Patriots in Mexico City (yes, my prediction). The Steelers take care of the Chiefs with a little more than six field goals this time, and we’re right back where we were last year: Pittsburgh at New England. Doing the same thing and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity, right?

NFC

  1. Dallas (12-4)

  2. Seattle (12-4)

  3. Atlanta (11-5)

  4. Green Bay (11-5)

  5. Carolina (11-5)

  6. Arizona (10-6)

Arizona just edged out the Giants and Bucs for the final playoff spot. The Cardinals fall in Atlanta, which doesn’t blow a huge lead this time. The Packers stand tall at home against the Panthers in an exciting shootout, but can’t outgun Dallas for a second year in a row. Atlanta falters in Seattle again, setting up Seahawks at Cowboys for the NFC Championship Game. This one goes to the more experienced Seattle team, denying Prescott that sophomore Super Bowl trip like Marino, Roethlisberger, and Wilson had.

SUPER BOWL LII

New England 23, Seattle 20

Ugh, this again. Pete Carroll figures his past ghosts (LenDale White vs. Texas, Malcolm Butler) won’t come back to haunt him, so he goes for the win at the 1-yard line with the Seahawks down 23-20 on fourth down in the final seconds. Eddie Lacy gets buried in the backfield for a 3-yard loss on the most predictable run-heavy formation look you’ll ever see. So someone finally runs the ball when they should have against the Patriots, but now we’ll have to complain they ran it the wrong way for the rest of our meaningless existence.

Tl;dr version: Patriots win everything and 31 other teams mean nothing anymore. Eat Arby’s.

Rant About Tom Brady and YPA

It must be July, because here we go again.

I knew immediately that the events on the evening of February 5th would make this a long offseason, but I haven’t really felt the need to go on a long rant about that game or the Patriots in general in the last five-and-a-half months. In fact, this might be the least writing I have done from February to mid-July in any of the last six years.

Personally, I had a string of bad luck — you know, things out of my control — and heartbreak that started around late January (Donald Trump’s inauguration day to be exact) and continued through late March before things eased up. I don’t want to go into details, but I suffered losses (family and pet) and had another health scare that required another CT scan (result: clear). I’ve been working hard on FOA 2017 (available soon) since May or so. In doing six teams (AFC West plus Miami and Detroit), and pushing most of the essays well past 4,000 words, this is probably the most work I have ever done for one of the books. I hope people appreciate it, even the Raiders and Dolphins fans.

But now that work on that is practically complete, I have more free time to think about random things as we wait for training camps to start. So Super Bowl LI has been back on my mind, ranging anywhere from Atlanta’s horrible game management to the history of big comebacks to that Tedy Bruschi style of “heart and leadership” that only Tom Brady can will his teammates to believe in.

I was going to write something in detail about that last part, but maybe we can save that for later this week if I’m still feeling the need to be cathartic. Today is about YPA, because I feel like I need to explain a tweet better from Monday where I admittedly spent way too many hours tweeting.

I often forget that some things that have become obvious to me are completely lost on others. The calculation of YPA and how it works should not be one of those things, but Twitter never ceases to amaze me.

I can only hope that a lot of those favorites are for comical reasons. There were other similar remarks, including the thought that 6.7 YPA is Bill Belichick playing to his team’s strengths, as if any offense would actually plan to have an inefficient attack. I was also told that 6.7 YPA means Brady is dominating. You know who has 6.7 YPA as his career average? Ryan Fitzpatrick. So dominant.

This was all a response to a tweet I made last night that didn’t go over so well once Peter King replied to it. Telling someone like me to “watch the games” is madness, but when typing 140 characters at a time, you can’t always explain nuance.

The “obvious” here was actually not so obvious, especially without turning it into a thread with follow-up points. What I meant was that Brady fans tend to think that he has winning records even in suboptimal situations (6.7 YPA is below average) because he is just that good or “clutch.” In the particular case of the 5-2 Super Bowl record, I see it as a quarterback fortunate to have that team record based on his play. It was the other non-Brady elements of the games that helped produce the record. Things like a Ty Law pick-6 helping the Patriots win a game in which Brady only led the offense to 13 points and failed to convert a third down. The Malcolm Butler interception at the 1-yard line. The absurdity of Seattle and Atlanta not running the ball in the fourth quarter in key spots. Every game was very close (decided by 3-6 points), so going 5-2 is quite fortunate in that regard.

YPA is a stat that has always correlated well with winning. In 2016, the team who won the YPA battle won over 70% of all NFL games. That’s not bad for a stat that does not care about rushing, sacks, turnovers, penalties, special teams, etc. Even in Super Bowl LI, Brady’s YPA was just 6.28 when the Patriots fell behind 28-3. It was 8.61, a league-leading type of number, the rest of the way during the comeback.

YPA correlates well with scoring points, which correlates well with winning games. This has been the case for decades in the NFL regardless of how the Patriots perform. And isn’t that really the point: how the Patriots, not just Brady, perform? His performance alone was rarely good enough to be the difference maker in these games. While Brady fans want to believe their guy has some special skill to win with a low YPA, I am saying he has no secret sauce that makes YPA invalid. The Patriots have just won a lot of close playoff games since 2001 for a variety of reasons.

Since 2001, the Patriots are 9-7 (.563) in the playoffs when Brady averages less than 7.0 YPA (min. 30 attempts). The rest of the NFL is 28-85 (.248) in that time.

The Patriots’ averaging scoring margin in those 16 games was +2.5. The rest of the NFL was -8.2. There were 14 wins by 1-4 points, and Brady’s Patriots had five of them.

Tell someone this, and it will likely get framed as “Brady won 56.3% of the time where other QBs only won 24.8% of the time. UberClutch! GOAT!”

We probably shouldn’t lambaste someone for wanting to think this way, but just so it’s clear, I will never agree with them or see things that way. When I look at the 16 games for Brady, and especially the nine wins, this is what comes to mind:

TBPOgames

(Yes, how fitting is it that of the last two times a quarterback threw a fourth-quarter, fourth-down interception that was fumbled back to his team, it benefited Tom Brady and “hurt” Peyton Manning. At least the Broncos were still up big at the time, but man, you can’t make this stuff up.)

I’m not saying the Patriots should have gone 0-16 in these games, but clearly there were a lot of favorable circumstances to aid Brady in the nine wins, and not many positives to speak of for him in the seven losses. While he still met his demise in 2006 and 2011, those were trips that could have easily been cut shorter if Marlon McCree and Lee Evans didn’t act the fool with the ball in their hands. Or without the greatness of kicker Adam Vinatieri on the types of 40-plus yard field goals that Mike Vanderjagt, Nate Kaeding, Pete Stoyanovich, and Scott Norwood choked on for other quarterbacks, Brady is doomed to start his playoff career 0-2 at home, averaging 12 points per game.

So many fans go wild when you suggest that their player has been the beneficiary of luck, but I think that’s mostly just a semantics issue. Anyone who understands the basic concepts of football can see that this is a team game where many pivotal plays are out of the quarterback’s control. When most games are close, especially in the playoffs, and a lot of improbable events have happened to swing those games, a lot of outcomes are not determined directly by the quarterback’s actions. So many good quarterbacks can repeatedly lead their team to a winning position, but it typically requires much more from the rest of the team to get to a large number of Super Bowls, for example. Luck is even defined as “success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions.” There’s a lot of skill involved in what the Patriots did in those wins (the field goals, the takeaways), but the common bond is that they weren’t the actions of Brady, but he still benefited with a win on days where he wasn’t at his best.

This isn’t me picking on Brady. This is what tends to happen when inefficient quarterback play is lifted by the slimmest of margins in the playoffs, and I can’t help it that Brady has been in that spot more than anyone in history. I said there were 14 wins by 1-4 points by quarterbacks under 7.0 YPA. Brady had five of them, but I can say similar things about the other games and quarterbacks.

For instance, Matt Hasselbeck needed Terry Glenn to fumble and for Tony Romo to botch the extra point hold in that infamous 21-20 win in 2006.

Donovan McNabb needed a 4th-and-26 conversion against the Packers in 2003, and a Brett Favre arm punt in overtime to get the 17-14 win.

Ben Roethlisberger should have lost his first playoff game against the 2004 Jets, but Doug Brien, after a Ben pick, missed his second field goal in the final two minutes. The Steelers won in overtime.

Mark Sanchez used a long kick return by Antonio Cromartie, and a terrible Jim Caldwell timeout, to down the Colts 17-16 in Peyton Manning’s final game with the team.

Eli Manning’s two NFC-CG wins are on the list. He didn’t play that poorly, but certainly used the field position boost from Brett Favre’s INT (2007) and two Kyle Williams special teams turnovers (2011). Eli did not complete a pass on either GWD in those games, because opponent mistakes did not require any of him.

A Favre interception also helped get Drew Brees to overtime in the 2009 NFC Championship Game, an overlooked “subpar” game for Brees that day. The Vikings had five turnovers in all, and Tracy Porter is the biggest reason Sean Payton isn’t just another Don Coryell at best.

Winning may be the only thing that matters to a team, and it is perfectly fine if a fan wants to feel that way too. However, the source of conflict is when those fans refuse to accept the fact that not everyone’s contribution to the win is equal. Sometimes a team wins in spite of its best player. I feel like we can always debate why a team won or lost a game, and which players were the most responsible for that result. It’s not always going to be agreeable or easy, but I know damn well there’s more to it than “YPA doesn’t matter because they won.” If that’s your logic, then scoring doesn’t matter either if you win. 3-0 win? Hail to the quarterback, I guess. Turnovers don’t matter if you win. Quarterback threw five picks in a 3-0 win? Hail to the quarterback, I guess.

I know this sounds crazy to some, but just check my Twitter mentions sometimes. These people really do exist, and I guess I’ve taken them on as my sworn enemy. Some fanbases are more rabid than others.

It will always be a losing battle when the opponent just wants to count rings, recheck the scoreboard, and deduce that 6.7 YPA is a dominant, never-punt strategy. I know this, but I continue to fight on, because I don’t know any other way to get through this job year after year. So I’ll continue to watch games, add old ones to my always-growing collection, take notes, crunch stats, and just call it like I see it.

Dating back to a snowy night in January 2002, I have simply never once watched Tom Brady play a game and thought I was watching the greatest quarterback ever. Unless he plays deep into his 40s at a level we’ve never seen before, I can’t imagine that I ever will feel that way about him. This ticks some people off, but I really don’t care about that, because I know what I’ve seen and I know I can back it up.

The effort just doesn’t always come across as clearly 140 characters at a time. Maybe I’ll just have to write that book one day, putting 16 years of knowledge to use.

 

 

 

2013 NFL Predictions

It’s time the tale were told…of how I see the 2013 NFL season unfolding. With some help from The Smiths, each team gets a song title to summarize the theme of their season, a key fact and the record I predicted by going through each game of the season.

Here are last year’s picks. You can bookmark this and shove it in my face when it goes horribly wrong, but I was not accounting for future injuries and at least I stuck my neck out there with a vision of what is virtually unpredictable.

NFC EAST

1. New York Giants (10-6)

The Smiths say: “What Difference Does It Make?”

The Fact: Tom Coughlin’s Giants have started 5-2 or better in nine consecutive seasons, tying the NFL record (1975-83 Cowboys).

Every year we know this team gets off to a strong start, hits a midseason slump, then it’s a matter of recovering for a Super Bowl run or missing the playoffs entirely. The Giants have actually missed the playoffs in three of the last four seasons. Many of the key pieces return, so that should help. At the end of the day, it does not matter what happens all season. With the NFC East, it will come down to the Week 17 game in New Jersey between the Giants and Redskins. I have the Giants winning that one, hence the division title.

2. Washington Redskins (10-6)

The Smiths say: “These Things Take Time”

The Fact: According to Football Outsiders, the 2012 Redskins used play-action passing more than any offense since 2005 (about 42%).

Operation patience indeed. However, the Redskins are wasting no time in bringing Robert Griffin III back from the ACL injury. He did not finish three games due to injury last season. That’s as many as Peyton Manning (0), Tom Brady (1) and Aaron Rodgers (2) have combined for their careers. I want to see him take better care of himself as he took many big hits when running. I also want to see him improve in obvious passing situations. RG3 saw his passing YPA drop to 5.84 on third down compared to 8.98 on all other downs. That’s a massive difference. The offense will still be efficient and balanced, the defense should get better with Brian Orakpo’s return, but I still have too many questions about this team before picking them to reach the next level. These things do take time.

3. Dallas Cowboys (8-8)

The Smiths say: “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” (video)

The Fact: Jason Garrett has coached 40 games for Dallas (21-19 record). Twenty-eight times the Cowboys and/or their opponent had the ball in the fourth quarter in a one-score game. Eleven times the Cowboys lost by surrendering a game-winning drive.

I was drinking the Dallas Kool-Aid last season. They sure sweeten it each year as no matter if the team is coming off consecutive 8-8 seasons or the fact they have one playoff win since 1997, the Cowboys are always in the spotlight. I know Romo’s better than most give him credit for. He is the highest-rated fourth-quarter passer in NFL history (100.7 passer rating including playoffs) and he did have five comebacks last year to make Week 17 relevant. Dez Bryant’s a star, Monte Kiffin should get more out of the defense than Rob Ryan ever could, but there’s still too many holes on the offensive line and the general inconsistent play from this team that I cannot pick anything better than 8-8 again for them.

4. Philadelphia Eagles (5-11)

The Smiths say: “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”

The Fact: When expanding out the Bill Walsh Coaching Tree, 28 of the 32 current head coaches fit on its branches. Chip Kelly is the only to have no NFL coaching experience.

I know there’s real excitement for Oregon’s Chip Kelly making the jump to the NFL, but I just do not see the impact in year one, especially with a declining quarterback like Michael Vick as the starter. Turnovers have killed the Eagles since the late portion of the 2010 season. This must be cleaned up, but Vick running a quick-decision, gimmicky offense sounds like a recipe for disaster. Three-and-out much? I hope Kelly finds himself the right quarterback as I would like to see what innovations he can bring to the NFL.

AFC EAST

1. New England Patriots (12-4)

The Smiths say: “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”

The Fact: Patriots have played all 12 teams to make the Super Bowl since 2006. They are 5-11 in those games (0-5 since 2011). They are 2-9 against the eventual champion.

You can put 12 wins in the bank for New England. A white, undrafted slot receiver from Texas Tech will lead the team in targets and receptions. Rob Gronkowski will return, dominate and probably get hurt again. The running game and offensive line will be great. The defense will play a bend-but-don’t-break style and rely on takeaways and big stops. Then in the playoffs, the Patriots will lose in a game they were favored to win over a team they played much better against in the regular season. If any of this sounds familiar, that’s because it is in large part what the team has done over the last eight years since last winning a Super Bowl. This year just throws in a murder plot to shake things up. The seven playoff exits have all come to teams the Patriots played in the regular season. New England will play Denver, Houston, Baltimore and the NFC South this season.

2. Miami Dolphins (6-10)

The Smiths say: “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me”

The Fact: Dolphins are the only team since 2000 to not have a quarterback pass for either 4,000 yards or throw more than 20 touchdowns.

The falsely reported demise of the Patriots seemed to favor Miami more than anyone in the East, but this division looks awful to me once you get past New England. Mike Wallace is a high-priced signing the Dolphins will learn to regret. Sure, he’ll help out an offense who had three touchdown passes to wide receivers in 2012, but he will not run every route and will not adjust to the ball as well as Brian Hartline did last year. Ryan Tannehill’s improvement is the biggest factor for this team, but I still see the offense holding them back from doing anything significant.

3. Buffalo Bills (3-13)

The Smiths say: “Frankly, Mr. Shankly” (video)

The Fact: Buffalo is the only NFL team who has failed to make the playoffs since 2000.

But sometimes I’d feel more fulfilled, making Christmas cards with the mentally ill.

Honestly, the Bills corrode my soul. For as long as I have been following the NFL closely, they are as boring as any team. They are onto their sixth era in terms of a coach/quarterback since having Marv Levy/Jim Kelly. This team did spend many resources on the defensive line, fired defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt (always a good idea) and they have some exciting skill players in Stevie Johnson and C.J. Spiller. There’s something to build on here, but where’s the quarterback? EJ Manuel was an iffy pick as the first quarterback off the board at No. 16, which usually means bad things, and now he’s hurt. Jeff Tuel? An impending Week 1 massacre at the hands of the Patriots could send this team on a downward spiral to where they are wondering how good Teddy Bridgewater would look in Buffalo.

4. New York Jets (3-13)

The Smiths say: “Bigmouth Strikes Again”

The Fact: Games involving the 2009, 2010 and 2012 Jets account for the three lowest completion percentages (team and opponent combined) in the NFL since 2005. The 2011 Jets rank 10th. That’s a sample size of 256 teams.

With Miami’s offense in the post-Marino era, the Bills and the Jets, it’s no wonder New England has owned this division since 2001. I think this is the end of the road for Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez in New York. It almost has to be. They made a run at it the first two years, but it’s time to blow this thing up and start over. Trading away your best player in Darrelle Revis was one of those steps, but there’s more to be done. Ryan should stick to being a defensive coordinator. Sanchez may want to see if ESPN will start him over Jesse Palmer in the booth.

NFC NORTH

1. Green Bay Packers (12-4)

The Smiths say: “This Night Has Opened My Eyes”

The Fact: Aaron Rodgers is 0-18 at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities against teams .500 or better.

As long as Rodgers is playing at a high level, you have to like the Packers in this division. One of the most competitive teams in the league, there were some cracks last year against the Giants and 49ers. That’s worrisome as we already know too well about this team’s failure in close games. They usually do not get blown out, but the stunningly bad playoff loss in San Francisco was an eye opener.

It looks clear that 2010 was the outlier for Green Bay, especially in regards to Dom Capers’ defense. In 2009, the Packers were lit up by elite quarterbacks and allowed 45 points in regulation to Arizona in the playoffs. The Giants scored 37 in Green Bay in the 2011 NFC Divisional, including a Hail Mary before halftime. Then last season, Colin Kaepernick ran for a NFL QB-record 181 yards and piles up 45 points and 579 yards in his playoff debut. The regular season is not a big challenge, but good luck to this team avoiding all those talented NFC teams in the playoffs who have the right pieces to beat them.

2. Chicago Bears (9-7)

The Smiths say: “Well I Wonder”

The Fact: Marc Trestman has worked under 11 different NFL head coaches before finally getting his first crack at the job.

Chicago is one of the teams that interest me as there are some real unknowns here with Trestman coming over from the CFL. Yes, he has plenty of NFL experience, but this is his first year on the job and the first time Chicago’s gone offensive-minded at coach in decades. There’s no more Brian Urlacher on the defense and Jay Cutler may have his best offense in place. This team has potential to make the playoffs, but Cutler’s lack of career progression and the expected regression on defense keeps them at 9-7 and out of the playoffs for me. But this is a major dark horse candidate who could be exciting to watch.

3. Detroit Lions (5-11)

The Smiths say: “Pretty Girls Make Graves”

The Fact: Matthew Stafford is 1-23 against teams with a winning record.

I wanted to pick a few more wins for this team after last year’s close losses, but the schedule was too tough, which brings us to the fact. I wanted to pick something different since I have used this one so much this offseason, but it’s still very much a defining part of this Jim Schwartz/Stafford era. Detroit cannot beat the good teams and the Lions will likely be playing many of them this season with this schedule. The song title references how the Lions have a history of a great skill player (Barry Sanders, Calvin Johnson) dominating each year in stunning fashion, but at the end of the day that individual greatness cannot compensate for overall team weakness.

4. Minnesota Vikings (5-11)

The Smiths say: “Accept Yourself”

The Fact: Minnesota played with the lead 58.7 percent of the time (credit to Chase Stuart’s research) in 2012, which ranked second.

This is one projection I have not sugarcoated. I think the Vikings overachieved with the 10-6 record. I think the defense is mediocre and not improved enough or good enough to play with the lead as often this year. I do not believe in dink-and-dunk Christian Ponder, who has to shine for this team to take the next step as Adrian Peterson will not be as great this year. He’s superhuman if he does. The “constant eight-man front” stuff is still a myth. I also hated the Cordarrelle Patterson trade-up pick and the Greg Jennings signing for that matter.

I do at least love second-year kicker Blair Walsh. Add it all up and I see double-digit losses with that schedule and this roster.

AFC NORTH

1. Cincinnati Bengals (13-3)

The Smiths say: “The Headmaster Ritual”

The Fact: Cincinnati’s 22-year drought without a playoff win is the fifth longest in the Super Bowl era.

It’s not even funny how uncomfortable I feel giving the Bengals 13 wins, but it’s probably just me trying to build too specific of a story in the AFC as you will see. I do think this team has the potential to field the best defense in the league. Andy Dalton was horrific on third down (converted 28.3%), but maybe adding TE Tyler Eifert and a third year with stud A.J. Green and others will aid a breakout season. The AFC is very top heavy.

It also should be do-or-die time for Marvin Lewis as I cannot see him returning without either a first-round bye or a playoff win. Ten years in one place without a playoff win has only been done by Jim Mora (New Orleans). Lewis would be at 11 years if the Bengals fail again this postseason, assuming they get there. It would be a franchise first to make the playoffs three years in a row.

2. Baltimore Ravens (10-6)

The Smiths say: “I Know It’s Over” (video)

The Fact: Baltimore has won a playoff game in five consecutive seasons. Only the 1991-96 Dallas Cowboys won at least one playoff game in six consecutive seasons.

The last seven defending Super Bowl champions have failed to win a single playoff game. It truly is a whole new season, and it should be easier for the Ravens to accept that last year was the past. Look at the partial list of players who have left the team: Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Paul Kruger, Anquan Boldin, Bernard Pollard, Stringer Bell, etc. Everyone’s leaving Baltimore, which might make it the rich Joe Flacco’s team, but is he great enough to carry them? Fortunately the defense may be better and Terrell Suggs probably has a big enough mouth to fire the team up before the game.

I still have Baltimore making the playoffs, but they will not advance once this time. I think last year was reaching the summit after a five-year journey and things will be much different moving forward as they try to return.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)

The Smiths say: “Cemetry Gates”

The Fact: Steelers have been on a pattern of playoffs-playoffs-no playoffs every year since 2001. Last year was the “no playoffs” year.

My uncle does not have the internet and he wanted me to let you know that “you heard it here first” that the Steelers will not even be a .500 team, which last happened in 2003 (6-10). Even if they finish 7-9, he may end up more right than I am as I already regret this pick of 10 wins. I just think the schedule is very favorable, though when do the Steelers ever capitalize on all of the winnable games on their schedule? The offensive line also looks to be as bad as ever, which is really saying something given past standards. It’s also not smart to pick three teams to win 10+ games in the same division, but so be it.

The AFC has, at best, eight quality teams, and I still have the Steelers missing the playoffs on tie-breakers with teams like the Ravens and Colts. The core talent is here to win now, but the problem is so much of it is brittle and susceptible to injury at any moment. Then without proper depth, you lose games. This defense is on borrowed time and Ben Roethlisberger’s not getting any younger. Any shot at doing something great must be realized now before it’s too late.

4. Cleveland Browns (6-10)

The Smiths say: “Unloveable”

The Fact: The Browns have lost 11+ games in five straight seasons.

Different year, same old shit. Okay, so a few more touchdowns, a better year from Trent Richardson and an improved defense, but still a very incomplete project.

NFC SOUTH

1. Atlanta Falcons (11-5)

The Smiths say: “How Soon Is Now?” (video)

The Fact: No team has won the NFC South in consecutive years, but the Falcons (5) now have the longest streak ever of consecutive winning seasons by any of the four teams in the division.

How soon is now? Clearly it’s Super Bowl or bust as Tony Gonzalez plans to retire after the year (for good, I assume). That will leave an awfully big hole in this offense without any real replacement or great receiver depth after the great Roddy White and Julio Jones. This is Matt Ryan’s year to shine (again). If he is the next Peyton Manning, then year six (2003) was a huge climb to MVP status, so let’s see what Ryan can do with a familiar offense that has added Steven Jackson, who should only be a marginal upgrade to Michael Turner. The defense is shaky, but they usually play well at home. I do not expect them to repeat as the No. 1 seed as no team has claimed the league’s best record in back-to-back years since the 1989-90 49ers.

I expect big things from this team.

2. New Orleans Saints (11-5)

The Smiths say: “Back to the Old House”

The Fact: Games involving the 2012 Saints included 13,616 yards of offense; the most in NFL history.

Sean Payton’s back, so is everything okay in New Orleans? Not quite if we are talking about Super Bowl aspirations. The defense is very much a work in progress, and Rob Ryan was a terrible hire if you ask me. Losing so many players to injury (Victor Butler, Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma) is a bad start to the year for a unit who will likely hold the team back in the end. Expecting a more efficient year from Drew Brees now that he has a real coach again.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-10)

The Smiths say: “Shoplifters of the World Unite” (video)

The Fact: Since winning Super Bowl XXXVII, Tampa Bay is 69-91 (.431) in the regular season and 0-2 in the playoffs.

Last year the offense was revamped by bringing in Vincent Jackson and drafting Doug Martin. The Buccaneers went at it again on defense this time with the trade for Darrelle Revis and big signing of Dashon Goldson. Stealing those assets from other teams should help a defense who really struggled against the pass. This is another team I wanted to pick more wins for, but it’s hard to predict much more than six. The schedule’s tough and Josh Freeman’s wildly inconsistent. Maybe an improved defense will help him settle down, knowing he has a running game and does not have to score as many points to win.

4. Carolina Panthers (5-11)

The Smiths say: “Nowhere Fast”

The Fact: Cam Newton is 2-15 (.118) at game-winning drive opportunities; the worst record among active starters.

The Ron Rivera/Cam Newton era has been plagued by an inability to close games. I was surprised to come back with a 5-11 record, as I see a team who improved on defense, but changed really nothing on offense. For that reason, the offense should be very similar, which is sometimes a good thing. Do not buy into the read-option myth. If this team could have closed more games in crunch time the last two years, they would have won 9-10 games. If they play the same way this year and do close, they can win 9-10, but still I come up with 5-11. We must see improvement from Newton and the bleeding must stop late in the game or else Rivera will be fired. I also fear for this offense should Steve Smith (34) suddenly fall off. They have not developed any other receivers and the running backs are overpaid and underutilized.

AFC SOUTH

1. Houston Texans (13-3)

The Smiths say: “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish”

The Fact: Against playoff teams, Matt Schaub is 11-24 (.314) as a starter, including a 7-11 record since 2010.

Before the Colts find more talent to put around Andrew Luck, these are crucial seasons for Houston, who has gone from expansion to .500 to a team who expects to be in Super Bowl contention. Matt Schaub was hurt in 2011, while the defense had no answers for Tom Brady and similar quarterbacks last year. That’s a problem when you play in the AFC. Houston has to get over the hump by beating a team better than Cincinnati in the postseason. This year should provide another chance as I think they should have a better team after finally adding a wide receiver to pair up with Andre Johnson, J.J. Watt is the best defensive player in the NFL, Brian Cushing is back and the running game is still going to be very good. They just need to finish the job and play some more home games in January. Falling to the No. 3 seed was a killer in 2012.

2. Indianapolis Colts (10-6)

The Smiths say: “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby”

The Fact: Indianapolis has 32 takeaways since 2011; the fewest in any two-season span in NFL history.

Many will want to pick the Colts to regress sharply after last season’s crazy results, but this schedule looks pretty favorable to me. In fact Football Outsiders predicts it to be the easiest in the league. The Colts may start no better than 4-4, but there’s not a game in the second half of the season they cannot win. I see 10 wins and another Wild Card as Andrew Luck plays more efficiently under Pep Hamilton, T.Y. Hilton takes some of the torch from Reggie Wayne and at least one of the young tight ends explodes. It would be nice if the defense could actually get some takeaways for a change, but that unit’s going to be a work in progress as will the marginally-improved offensive line.

This is the team of the future in the AFC, but they just do not have the talent or track record right now to be in serious contention for Super Bowl XLVIII.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12)

The Smiths say: “London” and “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”

The Fact: Cecil Shorts and Vincent Jackson (TB) were the only receivers with at least 50 receptions, 900 yards, 7 touchdowns and 17.0 YPC in 2012. (Hey, we’re looking for a positive.)

The Jaguars get two songs, because the jokes about moving the team to London have not stopped. It’s a sign that this team needs to get back to winning to end that silliness. They seem to be moving in the right direction with a new coach and some franchise-type talent on the offensive side of the ball, but it’s going to come down to the quarterback. I do not believe in Blaine Gabbert as the long-term answer, but the next quarterback may be. How would Tajh Boyd feel about Jacksonville?

4. Tennessee Titans (4-12)

The Smiths say: “Panic” (video)

The Fact: Tennessee was odd in that it had a 3-2 record at comeback opportunities, yet finished 6-10 overall. That is due to having six losses by at least 21 points, which was the highest total in 2012.

As has been my customary line on the Titans lately, I have no idea what Mike Munchak wants from this team. Jake Locker is a mobile, inaccurate quarterback, yet they keep drafting all kinds of receivers for him to miss. Chris Johnson is annoyingly boom-or-bust and the defense was dreadful last season. There’s just no sense of direction here and nothing on this roster that gets you excited about the future. Maybe this is the Jadeveon Clowney destination.

NFC WEST

1. Seattle Seahawks (12-4)

The Smiths say: “You’ve Got Everything Now”

The Fact: Seattle outscored its last eight opponents 272-111 (+161). Only the 2010 Patriots (+174) and 1984 49ers (+177) finished a regular season in more dominant fashion.

Well, I did pick Seattle to be the league’s next dynasty, so winning a division title would be a step in the right direction. The Seahawks are loaded and could be the league’s most balanced team in terms of the run and pass over both sides of the ball. They finished 2012 in great fashion with Russell Wilson playing out of his mind. He’s not a rookie anymore and you can win a Super Bowl with a sophomore quarterback. They return the same offense for the most part. Should Percy Harvin return late in the season, that’s just an added dimension to this offense. If this team gets home-field advantage, watch out NFC.

2. San Francisco 49ers (12-4)

The Smiths say: “A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours”

The Fact: Including playoffs and excluding kneel downs, Colin Kaepernick averaged 8.77 YPA passing and 8.75 YPC rushing in 2012.

No team may have a more poetic song choice than the 49ers, for if they would have called better plays in the red zone in the Super Bowl, they may have been 6-0 in the big game. The red zone has been a serious issue for this offense the last two years. It’s really one of the few flaws for Jim Harbaugh’s squad, which dominates the trenches, turnovers and running game. Colin Kaepernick was incredible in his shortened season, making his first full year as a starter one of the most anticipated ever. With some offseason injuries, I think Seattle pulls out the head-to-head games to allow for them to win the division, but we could see a third matchup between these two.

3. St. Louis Rams (6-10)

The Smiths say: “Stretch Out and Wait”

The Fact: After beating the Cardinals to go to 3-2 last season, the Rams ended a 71-month streak of not being over .500.

Sort of like the Dolphins of the NFC. This is just not a team I believe in right now. Sam Bradford must show franchise-caliber play, because if it does not happen by year four (where he’s at now), then it rarely ever does. Bradford is 2-21-1 (.104) when the Rams allow more than 17 points. They have added more weapons around him, but he is still the one operating things. The defense should keep them in many games, but I think most teams on the Rams’ schedule are better than they are, hence another losing record.

4. Arizona Cardinals (5-11)

The Smiths say: “Paint a Vulgar Picture”

The Fact: Arizona led the league with a 71.2 defensive passer rating; the highest rating ever for a league leader.

This is another one I feel strongly about. If Bruce Arians does not adjust his usual style of offense, it will be a disaster in Arizona. Carson Palmer cannot do the things Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck did under pressure. The king of garbage time will find Larry Fitzgerald with the ball quite a bit, but issues in the red zone and a lack of a good tight end will hurt the scoring numbers. Not to mention the offensive line still stinks and guard Jonathan Cooper is done for the year with a broken leg. The defense is also going to regress from last season, so any offensive improvement will likely be negated. I can’t see any more than six wins from this team.

AFC WEST

1. Denver Broncos (13-3)

The Smiths say: “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” (video)

The Fact: In games where he had a fourth-quarter lead since 2006, Peyton Manning is 74-5 (.937) in the regular season and 6-5 (.545) in the playoffs. The 74-5 includes a 40-5 record when protecting a one-score lead.

Teams give us a million reasons to not pick them to win the Super Bowl, but only a few reasons to pick them. If you did not already know, Denver has been my Super Bowl pick all year. They certainly had a discouraging offseason from executives with DUIs, Elvis Dumervil’s fax fiasco, Von Miller’s six-game suspension, injuries to notable players and more bad fumble luck in the preseason. Brandon Stokley has joined Dumervil in Baltimore, so Wes Welker cannot afford to get hurt.

Is it not all about finishing in the playoffs for this team? We know Manning can lead a team to 10 wins blindfolded. Miller will be back soon enough and fresher. Denver will play many notable games in the regular season.  It’s just a matter of finishing in January, because Manning will put this team in a position to do so. He’s had a fourth-quarter lead in 11 straight playoff games. That’s never been done. The fact his teams are 6-5 in those games is appalling. Just look at the fact above.

Good times for a change. See, the luck I’ve had can make a good man turn bad.

What more can I say about the BS Manning playoff narrative? (Don’t worry, I will have more in January on it). No quarterback has had more bad luck with things happening out of his control. It’s gotten to the point where in a big game, you should expect him to play well, but something unusual is going to happen that will lead to a loss. Rahim Moore was about as unusual as it gets last season, but that also got me thinking.

Sometimes you have to suffer a bad defeat to come back stronger the next year. Baltimore’s loss in New England in 2011 was as hard as they get with Lee Evans not holding onto the ball and then Billy Cundiff missing the field goal. They rebounded. The Giants blew their season in 2010 by giving up a 21-point lead to Philadelphia (that’s bad enough) before the DeSean Jackson punt return touchdown. They rebounded. Aaron Rodgers missed a game-winning touchdown pass and then had a fumble-six in Arizona in 2009. They rebounded.

Look at Manning’s 2005 Colts, who like the 2012 Broncos, won at least 11 straight games by 7+ points. They both lost the first playoff game in epic fashion. The 2006 Colts rebounded. Manning led an efficient offense and terrible defense in the regular season, but the defense actually showed up for the playoffs. That’s all he wants to see again this year. I do think Denver’s defense will be mediocre, but if Miller comes back and they get hot late, that’s all you need to win a championship.

Manning is 77-0 in games he finishes when his team allows 0-16 points. He doesn’t even need that strong of an effort. Just protect the lead in the playoffs for a change. All five of his playoff losses since 2007 have been comebacks by the opponent.

What Denver must avoid is letting last year’s Baltimore loss beat them twice. Do not get too overly aggressive in the four-minute offense with the lead. Do not get too crazy with the blitz on defense. Just play smart, which Rahim Moore failed to do. The talent is on this team, who can be their own worst enemy at times, to win a championship. They can win any game they play.

But if winning the Super Bowl is about getting hot late, then maybe a slow start is exactly what this team needs. I still ended up giving them 13 wins, but I strategically placed them into the No. 3 seed. If winning a Super Bowl means overcoming adversity, Denver has certainly set up a path to do that this season.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (8-8)

The Smiths say: “Is It Really So Strange?”

The Fact: The Chiefs have gone 414 games since a quarterback they drafted started and won a regular-season game. That will continue after the Alex Smith trade.

After the worst season in franchise history and holding the No. 1 pick, the Chiefs are actually in a good position to get to .500 right away. 8-8 is the record I have consistently paired them with this offseason. There’s potential for more in a weak division and conference. The roster has been turned over a lot with new additions at the key jobs of coach and quarterback. Andy Reid and Alex Smith are a good match, but time will tell if it’s great. Reid has been mostly mediocre since the Super Bowl loss and Smith only has 1.5 seasons of quality play on his track record. Still, it should make fans forget about the misery of last season.

3. San Diego Chargers (7-9)

The Smiths say: “Still Ill”

The Fact:  Philip Rivers is 2-19 in his last 21 game-winning drive opportunities. He’s turned the ball over 16 times in the clutch in those losses.

There’s not too much that Rivers needs to fix in general. His failures have been largely situational since 2010 (red zone and close games). It’s hard to fully blame the evaporating talent around him when he can look great for three quarters and turn into a pumpkin in the fourth. Just look at that Tampa Bay game last year as a great example. Only a handful of Rivers’ interceptions have been under pressure the last two years. This team has been in position to win many games since 2010, but he has turned the ball over late in historic fashion with unparalleled consistency. I am not sure Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt are the right offensive minds to fix this, but I do think the Chargers will win about seven games again.

4. Oakland Raiders (2-14)

The Smiths say: “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” (video)

The Fact: It has been 10 straight seasons in Oakland of not winning and not making the playoffs. At least the NFL record is 20 (1967-86 Saints).

How do you make an awful team (2012 Raiders who swept Kansas City to get to 4-12) even worse? You do whatever Oakland has done to chop this roster down into one of the least talented in recent memory. Two wins sounds like a good ceiling for this squad. At least it should bring in the No. 1 pick, which probably should be Teddy Bridgewater. Then again, many smart football minds had Matt Barkley going No. 1 a year ago at this time. But really Oakland, get a quarterback and then your roster moves won’t look so bad. The black hole of losing is going to continue until that guy is found.

PLAYOFFS

AFC

  • 1. Houston (13-3)
  • 2. Cincinnati (13-3)
  • 3. Denver (13-3)
  • 4. New England (12-4)
  • 5. Baltimore (10-6)
  • 6. Indianapolis (10-6)

Yep, the same six teams from last year, though the AFC has been shaping up this way the last few years. Talk about some dream matchups with Andrew Luck going to Denver and a rematch of Patriots/Ravens on Wild Card weekend. Like 2006, Manning and Brady will pull off the road wins on Divisional weekend and meet in Denver for the AFC Championship. Hard to top the classic that was that game, but this could do it as Denver gets the high-scoring win.

NFC

  • 1. Seattle (12-4)
  • 2. Green Bay (12-4)
  • 3. Atlanta (11-5)
  • 4. New York (10-6)
  • 5. San Francisco (12-4)
  • 6. New Orleans (11-5)

We’ll call this the Atlanta Revenge Tour. They beat the Saints in the Wild Card game. San Francisco gets swept by the Seahawks to lose the division, but spoils their season with a win in Seattle. The Falcons make Green Bay go one-and-done (2010 payback). Then in a rematch of last year’s NFC Championship, the Falcons hold on this time to down the 49ers.

SUPER BOWL XLVIII

Denver Broncos 24, Atlanta Falcons 13

Last year’s No. 1 seeds, they overcome adversity as No. 3 seeds this year to meet in the Super Bowl. I have compared the 2012 Broncos to the 1996 Broncos before. This will be a mixture of the 1997-98 teams. You have the Super Bowl between the veteran (Manning) and the young gun (Ryan). You have Denver and Atlanta (Super Bowl XXXIII rematch). Manning will hope the “retiring player winning a Super Bowl” thing does not happen to him for a third time (Jerome Bettis and Ray Lewis) with Gonzalez.

Oh and the game will be in New Jersey in February. It’s the same site the Falcons scored 0 offensive points in a loss to the Giants. Bad weather would hurt both of these pass-heavy teams, which should hopefully signal the end of having a Super Bowl in cold, outdoor stadiums.

In the end, Manning leads Denver to the sloppy win, ensuring that detractors can complain about his Super Bowl MVP after winning the two worst weather games in Super Bowl history. Always having that distinction as being the first quarterback to lead two franchises to a Super Bowl is the best thing you can have if you were not fortunate enough to be on a team who won 3-4 rings.

More than any team, that’s a lot of specific Denver predictions, but this is just my vision, my story of the 2013 season. There are countless possibilities to get from Thursday night to Super Bowl XLVIII.

Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head.

NFL Week 9 Predictions, Adjusted 4QC Records and Writing Recap

Only five articles this week, but that just means a bonanza next week when we officially hit the midpoint of the NFL’s regular season.

This Week’s Articles

Captain Comeback Week 8: Eli Manning Out-Clutches Tony Romo in Dallas – Cold, Hard Football Facts

Stat of the week: Eli Manning has produced just as many 4QC/GWD (3) in new Cowboys Stadium as Tony Romo. Only problem is Manning’s played there four times compared to 23 starts for Romo. Also: Cam Newton bounces around from Superman to Scam in Chicago, Matthew Stafford comes up big again, and Andrew Luck gets to 3 game-winning drives in just seven games. We also find that Betty White scores more in Cleveland than Philip Rivers.

Breaking Down What Went Wrong with Redskins’ Receivers in Loss to Steelers – Bleacher Report

Just how many passes did the Redskins drop in Pittsburgh on Sunday? Depends on which site you look at. I went through every incompletion and offered a look at each. Robert Griffin III’s stats were definitely impacted, but most of the plays weren’t as harmful to Washington’s cause as you might have expected.

Following a Legend: Andrew Luck Week 8 at Tennessee Titans – Colts Authority

Oh we have a logo now, and Andrew Luck has his second comeback and third GWD already with his best game of the season. Despite being pressured so frequently, Luck was very efficient and was at his best late in the game: 10/12 for 115 yards, TD and both incompletions were dropped. The Colts had a different gameplan this week, and I have the data to back it up.

The Thinking Man’s Guide: NFL Week 9 Predictions – Bleacher Report

This week we look at the 37 teams to start 7-0 since 1940. Tony Romo is the only QB in NFL history to defeat two undefeated teams who were 7-0 or better (9-0 Colts in 2006, 13-0 Saints in 2009). When Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger meet on Sunday, it will only be the 9th time a pair of quarterbacks with multiple Super Bowl rings face each other (as active owners of 2+ rings). It is the 7th time the Steelers are involved in such a game, and the third year in a row for Roethlisberger. We also have a potential first meeting of rookies with winning records this late into the season with Andrew Luck and Ryan Tannehill. Finally, some perspective on how great Drew Brees has been in the Superdome in prime time, and how the Eagles and Michael Vick will try and save their season with a road win.

Best and Worst Quarterback Records In the Clutch Adjusted for Strength of Schedule – Cold, Hard Football Facts

I compiled over 800 fourth-quarter comeback opportunities for 25 active starting quarterbacks and broke them down for strength of schedule (SOS), looking at strength of victory, and the records against teams .500 or better and teams with a losing record. Some individual notes on all 25 quarterbacks included. Definitely some interesting results.

2012 NFL Week 9 Predictions

Originally I picked Atlanta to go 8-0, but doesn’t it seem like the stars are aligning for a Dallas upset? The Falcons are hardly dominant, even though they are hard to beat in that dome. The Cowboys have upset two undefeated teams in recent years, have a good  matchup here, and let’s not forget Tony Romo is Mr. November with a 19-2 record in the month. After all the criticism this week for the loss to the Giants, this is actually the perfect opportunity for the Cowboys to show up and deliver a big win.

Or, they will fall flat on their faces as the Falcons’ undefeated march continues. But I think I’m going to roll the dice and go with the upset.

Winners in bold:

  • Broncos at Bengals
  • Ravens at Browns
  • Cardinals at Packers
  • Bills at Texans
  • Dolphins at Colts
  • Lions at Jaguars
  • Bears at Titans
  • Panthers at Redskins
  • Buccaneers at Raiders
  • Vikings at Seahawks
  • Steelers at Giants
  • Cowboys at Falcons
  • Eagles at Saints

Season results:

  • Week 1: 12-4
  • Week 2: 11-5
  • Week 3: 4-12
  • Week 4: 10-5
  • Week 5: 10-4
  • Week 6: 5-9
  • Week 7: 12-1
  • Week 8: 10-4
  • Season: 74-44

NFL Week in Review: Andrew Luck Live, Matt Ryan on FOX, and 5th-Year Breakout QBs

A goose, a moose, and the son of Marv Albert walk into a bar…

Watching a live NFL broadcast is good for the creative mind. You can pick up plenty of ammo for The Whistleblower, and every once in a while you might learn something of value.

I watched the Cincinnati Bengals at Atlanta Falcons preseason game on Thursday night, or at least as much as I could stomach, and I found multiple things worth looking into.

First, the FOX broadcast team of Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston and Tony Siragusa seemed pretty supportive of Atlanta’s Matt Ryan. There was not much talk about the playoff struggles, but instead they went optimistic for Ryan to really get things going in his fifth season.

In fact, even after one nice play by Ryan in the game the crew said something to the effect of “maybe the 5th year really is the breakout year for a young quarterback!”

Now they were not being scientific of course, and neither am I today. But I decided to dig a little into quarterbacks, with the help of Pro Football Reference’s Play Index, and see if there was any proof for the 5th season being the breakout season.

This would be defined as the QB having his best season in his fifth year, and ignoring any season that came afterwards for the purposes of this study.

The results were surprising, as I actually did find several high-profile cases of a QB having a career-year in season 5. Certainly enough to actually warrant the claims the FOX crew threw out there.

Note: When I say career-high here, I am only looking at the first five seasons unless noted otherwise.

5th-Year Breakout QBs

  • Sid Luckman (1943) – This one is influenced by WWII, but 1943 was the year Luckman threw 28 TD and had a ridiculous 107.5 passer rating.
  • Sonny Jurgensen (1961) – after riding the bench for four years in Philadelphia, Jurgensen got his shot in 1961 and threw for a then NFL record 3,723 yards and 32 TD.
  • Daryle Lamonica (1967) – After four backup years in Buffalo in which he was also a punter, Lamonica exploded with the Raiders, throwing 30 touchdowns and leading the team to Super Bowl II.
  • Bob Griese (1971) – Had a career-high 90.9 passer rating while throwing 19 TD to only a career-low 9 INT.
  • Ken Stabler (1974) – Threw 26 TD  and won the only AP NFL MVP award of his career.
  • Ken Anderson (1975) – Though 1974 was incredible too, Anderson made his first Pro Bowl and a 10-win season in 1975, while throwing for a      career-high 3,169 yards and 21 TD.
  • Danny White (1980) – Backup to Roger Staubach no more, White threw 30 TD and led Dallas to a 12-4 record and the most points scored in the league.
  • Joe Montana (1983) – One could argue 1981, the first Super Bowl win, was a better year, but in 1983, Montana had a career-high in yards (3,910), TD (26), and passer rating (94.6).
  • Dave Krieg (1984) – though he was more efficient in 1983, he only played half the season. In 1984, Krieg threw 32 TD and led Seattle to a 12-4 record.
  • John Elway (1987) – His lone MVP  award of his career came in 1987, which was the best season Elway had in his first 10 seasons actually.
  • Boomer Esiason (1988) – Won league  MVP and led the highest-scoring offense in the league to the Super Bowl in the best year of his entire career.
  • Chris Miller (1991) – Here’s a former Falcon. 13th overall pick in 1987, Miller had his lone Pro Bowl      season in 1991 when he threw 26 TD and led Atlanta to the second round of the playoffs.
  • Brett Favre (1995) – had a career-high in yards, TD and passer rating. Favre won his first MVP award.
  • Scott Mitchell (1995) – Yep, the one-year wonder came alive in 1995 with 4,338 yards and 32 TD for the Detroit Lions.
  • Matt Hasselbeck (2003) – Threw a career-high 26 TD while leading Seattle to 10-6 and the playoffs. He wanted to score too much that year.
  • Tom Brady (2004) – Brady had his best statistical season in year 5 as he led the Patriots to a third Super Bowl in four seasons. It was the first time he had a passer rating over 90.0 in a season, and this was easily the most dominant NE team to win a Super Bowl.
  • Tony Romo (2007) – In his second year as a starter, Romo led Dallas to a 13-3 record, threw for 4,211 yards, 36 TD and had a 97.4 passer      rating.
  • Philip Rivers (2008) – forget the  8-8 record, Rivers was on fire that year with 34 TD and a league-best 105.5 passer rating.
  • Eli Manning (2008) – After the  Super Bowl win, Manning had the best regular season of his career in 2008, leading the Giants to a 12-4 record and setting career highs in comp.  percentage, YPA and passer rating.
  • Aaron Rodgers (2009) – In just his second year as a starter, Rodgers threw 30 TD to only 7 INT, and had a 103.2 passer rating.

I could go on, but 20 rather high-profile cases is good enough to get the point across. Year five has been a breakout year for many of the all-time greats.

But what about the math check? We are talking about five seasons, so there is a 20 percent chance a QB will have his career/breakout year in the fifth year.

Even more inflating is the fact that most of these quarterbacks are not like Matt Ryan: starters from day one. Only Griese and Elway were five-year primary starters. When you sit on the bench for multiple seasons like Rivers or Rodgers, then it is even more likely your 5th season will be your best. Rodgers had a 50 percent chance, because all you could really compare are 2008 and 2009.

Notice players that started as rookies like Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, Ben Roethlisberger and Johnny Unitas did not make the list. That’s not to say they were not any good in year five, but it was not their best effort.

Matt Ryan’s best season was 2010. Maybe he will surpass it this year, but it is far from being a lock.

Great QB-Head Coach Pairings

Matt Ryan entering his fifth season also means Mike Smith is entering his fifth season as head coach of the Falcons. They came in together, and as I wrote at Bleacher Report last week, that is one of the great ways to turn a team around.

I looked at 80 cases in the Super Bowl era (but not every single case) of a team getting a new head coach and quarterback in the same year. Nine have been extremely successful (the elites), 20 had moderate success (Ryan/Smith fit in here), 12 were average/one-year wonders, and 34 were complete and utter failures together. That leaves five active/unknowns.

That includes 2012 rookies Chuck Pagano/Andrew Luck in Indianapolis, and Joe Philbin/Ryan Tannehill in Miami. They are the 31st and 32nd examples of a team hiring a rookie head coach and drafting a first-round QB in the same year since 1966.

FOX Gave Me a Concussion

The worst thing from the NFL on FOX, besides Laura Okmin’s interviews in Baltimore on Friday, was the semi-brutal discussion in Atlanta about the new kickoff rule helping to bring concussions down 43 percent on kickoffs. The crew boasted about how great that was, but they were misleading people by only looking at that one number.

As I wrote last week with data from Edgeworth Economics, concussions may have went down 43 percent on kickoffs, but it is because the number of kicks actually returned went down to 53.5 percent. In previous seasons, returnable kicks were in the lower 80’s in percentage.

Kickoffs are not safer. They just are less frequent. Going from 35 to 20 concussions on kickoffs sounds nice, but not so much when the overall concussion number only goes from 270 down to 266. That means concussions on other types of plays increased in 2011.

Also, we are talking about a one-year sample size, which was unusual because of the lockout. Let’s see what happens with the injury data this year before declaring the kickoff rule change a success.

Maybe we need five years of data for it to be clear. Just throwing it out there, much like Fox did in their effort to talk up Matt Ryan during a meaningless preseason game.

At least they were not blatantly wrong…this time.

Andrew Luck…Live and In Person

Finally, I went to the Colts/Steelers game last night, which means I did not get to hear any of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth. They are not a duo I have a beef with, and you kind of miss hearing some type of analysis offered other than the loudest people sitting in your section.

With the stadium Wi-Fi almost nonexistent and a lack of stats on the scoreboard, I was pretty much forced to use the eyeball test to follow the game. This is exactly why I never go to regular season Sunday games (I have actually never been to a regular season or playoff game period), because I cannot be away from all the action going on around the league. I need details.

Not to mention I still favor my couch and computer chair. Even if the seat was pretty damn nice.

Ben Roethlisberger threw maybe the worst interception I have ever seen him throw, and I have seen them all. The Steelers showed very little on offense outside of Antonio Brown’s incredible run-after-catch on the touchdown. I have not seen a Pittsburgh WR do that since Santonio Holmes did it to the Baltimore Ravens in the 2008 AFC Championship.

I don’t know if Antonio Brown can replace Mike Wallace, but he has been a great replacement for Holmes.

Just before the game I learned via Twitter the NFL Network showed my tweet about predicting a 9/16 for 84-yard performance by Luck against Pittsburgh’s defense. I missed it. Again.

Andrew Luck started off with a weird Bruce Arians screen that saw Reggie Wayne go in motion, and Luck threw at his teammate’s ass (it appeared that way to me at least). I actually saw Wayne in motion and line up on the right, which is far different from his usual “I only line up on the left” role in Indy’s offense.

Luck threw a good pass to Collie, who must have dropped it on the way to the ground after taking yet another hit that saw him walk slowly to the bench. I don’t feel very good about the long-term career of this kid, which is a shame because he is a talented receiver.

That 19-yard reversal seemed to take forever, as did most of the challenge/reviews with the replacement refs. At least they knew which teams were playing tonight.

Luck’s pick six by Ike Taylor was a poorly thrown pass, and you know things are going bad when stone-hands Ike Taylor is taking your pass to the house. At this point, Luck was 2/8 for 16 yards and the INT.

But like he did last year at Stanford, he came right back from a mistake and led his offense to a touchdown. This is a great article from ESPN on Luck’s career at Stanford, and one of the facts I remembered was Luck bouncing back from interceptions last season.

After 10 interceptions in 2011, Luck led Stanford to 7 touchdowns on the ensuing drives. He was 28/34 for 288 yards, 3 TD and no turnovers on those drives. He knows how to immediately make up for a mistake.

After starting the next drive with a sack, Luck could have easily folded down 14-0 on the road, but he came back with four straight completions on a touchdown drive. He did have a second interception, but that was all on T.Y. Hilton throwing the big gain up into the air for a turnover.

Though he was 8/16 for 79 yards and two picks to start the game, numbers pretty close to my 16-attempt prediction, I was still far off on how Luck would finish the night. He was 16/25 for 175 yards, a TD run, and the two INT.

He had a spike to set up a last-second field goal. He had at least two drops that would have been another 40 yards in the half. Luck was pretty impressive in my book.

The game does not count for anything, and is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

But for one night, I experienced football from an angle without any commentary, statistics, while watching two teams I respect, and with players I may never see in person again in my life.

Now that it’s over, my anticipation for the real thing is much greater.

Coming up this week: expect articles on regression for elite offenses, potential myth-busting, and a PSA on bad stat usage. I will also give the podcast world a try for the first time.

(If you were looking for the punchline to the joke at the beginning, think “something, something…sodomy and glory holes”)